Charles Morrison, executive director of the Pittsburgh Commission on Human Relations, gets calls all the time from lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people who've been discriminated against by potential landlords or employers. And while such discrimination is a clear violation of city law, often Morrison can do nothing to help ... because the person calling doesn't live in Pittsburgh, and city law doesn't apply.
For LGBT people in Pennsylvania, human rights can depend on your zip code. "There are areas of the commonwealth where this type of discrimination is entirely legal," Morrison said at a recent hearing on proposed anti-discrimination legislation.
In 1990, Dan Miller, now a member of Harrisburg's city council, ran smack into that discrepancy -- and his firing simply for being gay would still be legal now.
Miller was working as an accountant in Camp Hill, a small city outside Harrisburg. When his employer found out he was gay, Miller was terminated.
"In Harrisburg, workers have protection," says Miller at the hearing. "In Camp Hill, they don't." Miller opened his own firm and clients followed, and his previous employer sued him -- successfully -- for violating a non-compete clause in his contract. The judge dismissed his counterclaim of wrongful discharge and awarded the former employer -- who never denied that the productive accountant was fired only because of his sexual orientation -- $126,648.
A bill proposed by state Rep. Dan Frankel (D-Squirrel Hill) would change that. House Bill 1400 would bar discrimination based on "sexual orientation, gender identity or expression" throughout the state. But while Frankel has amassed a sizable amount of support, doubters remain -- not least of them the Catholic Church, which contends that protecting gays would mean sacrificing its own religious freedom.
House Bill 1400 would extend anti-discrimination protections based on "sexual orientation, gender identity or expression" across the entire state. The bill would amend the state's 1955 act creating the Human Rights Commission that forbids discrimination based on "race, color, religious creed, ancestry, age or national origin."
Across the state, 14 local governments -- including Pittsburgh -- already have ordinances to protect discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or identity. But most Pennsylvanians -- about three-quarters, says Frankel -- live in areas without such laws.
"It's ridiculous to go from one municipality to another and not be able to enjoy the same protections," says Frankel. "We're trailing behind -- we've got 20 other states [with ordinances]; corporate America is so far ahead it's mind-boggling." The current list of Fortune 500 companies includes 433 with sexual orientation mentioned in their corporate nondiscrimination policies, Frankel says, and 124 that mention transgender employees.
Frankel says the time is right for the bill: "I now have a committee chair [Babette Josephs, D-Philadephia], who is open to having the bill run in her committee and is a supporter of the bill. I have Democratic leadership I can work with who will schedule the bill for a vote, [and] a governor who clearly is in favor of this legislation. The stars begin to align themselves to make this the moment you can get legislation like this accomplished. It doesn't maintain a partisan identification."
Despite Frankel's optimism, passage of the bill is not a sure thing. He's proposed similar legislation in the past, and it's never made it into committee. And even with a Republican, Sam Browne, as the prime sponsor of corresponding Senate Bill 761, the house bill has only four Republican co-sponsors. All of them represent districts in the Eastern part of the state -- York, Adams, Bucks and Chester counties. While they make up only a little more than 5 percent of the bill's sponsorship, Republicans make up about half of House membership.
"The major obstacle is, will the Senate even bring it up for a vote," says Frankel, noting the Senate's Republican leadership. "If we're successful at getting it through the House, there will be enormous pressure on the Senate to get it through."
A May 2007 Gallup poll found 89 percent of Americans in support of equal-employment opportunities for gays and lesbians, a 30 percent increase over 20 years. The same study found that "today 72 percent of Americans agree that 'fairness is a basic American value and employment decisions should be based solely on qualifications and job performance, including for transgender people.'"
"Public support for this type of legislation is strong," says Steve Glassman, chair of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission. "This piecemeal protection is no substitute for an enforceable statewide law."
At public hearings on the bill in Pittsburgh and Erie, testimony was overwhelmingly in support of HB 1400.
"It strikes me that at the dawn of a new millennium we sit here and feel the need to codify what should be a fundamental human right," said Rep. Michael O'Brien, a Democratic co-sponsor from Philadelphia, at the Pittsburgh hearing on Oct. 4.
Fireworks came when three speakers from the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference testified. They presented the only testimony against the bill during the four-hour hearing.
"Catholic institutions and agencies could find themselves subject to discrimination charges because of following teachings," said Philip Murren, legal counsel to the Conference. "There will be consequences for Catholic citizens when they are compelled by the state to condone conduct which their church teaches is immoral."
Rita Joyce, legal counsel to the diocese of Pittsburgh, said that all 6,300 employees of the diocese, including teachers and staff at its 101 elementary schools and 12 secondary schools, are required to sign a document asserting they won't live a life that is contrary to Catholic teachings.
Martha Beamer, director of adoption services for Catholic Charities, said, "If this bill is passed without allowing us to follow our religion's teachings, we may lose our state license." The charity, she added, is the largest provider of social services in Pennsylvania. Beamer said the agency's policy is that "a married couple or single parent is best. Alternative living situations do not ideally serve the child." In the Boston diocese, she said, Catholic Charities ceased to provide adoptions in March 2006, after Massachusetts adopted a law similar to HB 1400.
Three Conference members were grilled by Frankel: Josephs; Thomas Blackwell (D-Philadelphia), who compared anti-gay sentiment to the racism he says he faces daily; and a red-faced O'Brien, who spoke through gritted teeth: "I just can't get my head around how you can go with the concept of the right and proper thing to do. The right and proper thing to do is to allow everyone to live with dignity."
O'Brien said his late sister, a lesbian, lived for years in a convent as a chaste nun. He wondered whether Conference officials would have refused her service if they had known. Joyce said that if she were chaste, her sexual persuasion would have been of no concern to the church.
Frankel asked Conference representatives to provide him with more information about the situation in Boston, and whether they'd be willing to work with him on crafting an appropriate religious exemption to the language of the bill.
"We're not trying to overcome church doctrine," Frankel said in an interview with CP. "What kind of exemptions, if any, would be reasonable? Clergy is one category, but other employees are a different issue." He said that in the case of adoption, there were a multitude of factors more important to a child's well-being than the sexual orientation of the potential parents, and that he hoped Catholic Charities would consider them.
Only one other group has testified against the measure so far -- the American Family Association. Diane Gramley, president of the Pennsylvania chapter of the AFA, testified at the Oct. 5 hearing in Erie. She said in a telephone interview that in light of the "thousands of former homosexuals," it's unrealistic to consider sexual orientation or gender expression as an immutable characteristic meriting protection under the law. "They're equating something that is changeable with civil rights -- with skin color and national origin." The bill, she says, would be "opening the door for radical homosexuals and radical transgenders to take their agenda even further."
"Many, many faiths are supportive of LGBT people," notes Stacy Sobel, executive director of the Philadelphia-based Equality Advocates Pennsylvania, who attended the Pittsburgh hearing. She noted the support of the Faith Coalition for Pennsylvania Families, a multi-faith group. "There are many people of faith that support this legislation. We shouldn't allow one voice to outweigh all the others."
Religious groups "ought to have the right to discriminate if it's a tenet of their religion," says Bruce Ledewitz, a law professor at Duquesne University and an expert on church and state issues. He is the author of American Religious Democracy: Coming to Terms with the End of Secular Politics.
The Catholic Conference's objections to HB 1400, he says, seem reasonable up to a point. "Society determines the rules of the marketplace," he says, so things like renting apartments can be codified. But religious groups -- as opposed to individuals -- ought to be allowed to set policy according to their faith. For instance, he sees no problem with his employer, a Catholic institution, refusing to cover birth-control pills under its employee health benefits.
"I don't think the Catholic Church is trying to undermine anti-discrimination toward gay and lesbian people," he says. Instead, he figures they simply want to be assured of their right to practice their religion, which could be accomplished by writing a religious exemption into the legislation.