Allegheny County Council set to act on bill banning all discrimination

Religious groups may get exemptions

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Allegheny County Council this evening is expected to debate -- and possibly approve -- a bill that would prohibit all sorts of discrimination in county operations, including discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation.

The bill, which would also create a seven-member commission to investigate reports of discrimination in county government -- prohibiting discrimination based on race, color, religion, national origin, ancestry, sex, age, marital status, gender identity or sexual orientation -- is expected to draw fire from a number of corners.

Some religious groups that have risen as ardent opponents of the bill view it as a form of government intrusion on their religious freedom, because they don't believe the county should set a standard of who they can and cannot hire notwithstanding their gender and sexual orientation.

Proponents, who have been pushing County Council to adopt the proposal since it was introduced by Councilwoman Amanda Green, D-Stanton Heights, last July, say they support the principle of such a bill, but they have problems with the version currently under consideration by council.

That is because council last week amended the proposal to exempt religious organizations -- even those that receive county funding -- from the strictures of what would be the Allegheny County Human Relations Commission.

"The ordinance as it is currently amended is very problematic," said Dana Elmendorf of the Steel City Stonewall Democrats, and one of the coalition of activists that have been pushing the county to adopt a broad nondiscrimination policy similar to what the City of Pittsburgh adopted in 1954.

Sara Rose, an attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, said the problem with the current version of the bill is that it gives certain religious organizations an advantage over other groups, thereby violating the establishment clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

In essence, Ms. Rose said, the bill would allow religious organizations that take into consideration gender, sexual orientation or gender identity as reasons to employ or not to employ, to discriminate in their hiring policies on any basis, including race and disability.

Meanwhile, religious organizations that don't consider gender, sexual orientation or gender identity for employment purposes would not be allowed to discriminate in their hiring practices.

Ms. Rose said that if council approves the bill as is, it will leave itself open to a legal challenge against the county.

"Language that protects people of all sexual orientations is important and needed in aspects of county government as a community," said the Rev. Randy Bush of East Liberty Presbyterian Church. "I think people should not be fearful of language that protects other people, people of all sexual orientation," he added.

A group of lesbian, gay and transgender activists and others, who have been pushing council to remove the controversial section of the bill that was added in committee deliberations last week, yesterday said they are prepared to support the bill if council modifies it tonight.

Members of the group -- Coalition for the Allegheny County Human Relations Ordinance -- said they will support a bill that would exempt sectarian, religious, charitable and fraternal organizations from complying with the Human Relations Ordinance.

What the group proposed as an amendment to the current bill, it said, would also not require religious organizations to register with the Human Relations Commission and in doing so receive the right to discriminate.

Coalition members, who have been in negotiations with council and County Executive Dan Onorato's office for what they consider a compromise, said they don't think what they have proposed should prevent the county from mandating in contracts that religious organizations must comply with the Human Relations Act.

Councilman William Robinson, D-Hill District, who last week introduced the amendment that is now the focus of debate, said passing a bill will not be easy.

"I don't believe there will be eight votes for this bill if you remove the exemption for religious organizations," he said.

Karamagi Rujumba can be reached at or 412-263-1719.


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