With even Iowa -- Iowa! -- poised to permit same-sex marriage, is there a chance for Pennsylvania to take a step forward for gay rights?
Possibly, say backers. But it won't be easy.
State Rep. Dan Frankel (D-Squirrel Hill) has been trying to prohibit discrimination against gays and lesbians almost since he became a legislator, in 1999. Previous bills died in committee, but in mid-March, House Bill 300 cleared the House State Government committee. "That means it's really in a position to run," Frankel says.
HB 300 would place sexual orientation and gender identity or expression as "protected classes" under the Human Relations Act, which already prohibits discrimination based on attributes like race, religion and gender. If HB 300 passes, then lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender (LGBT) people will be protected from discrimination when seeking access to jobs, housing, education and other public accommodations. Such protections already exist in 14 Pennsylvania cities (including Pittsburgh) and 20 other states.
Still, Frankel adds, the bill has lost half a dozen co-sponsors due to "enormous opposition" by conservative organizations working under the Pennsylvania for Marriage Coalition.
HB 300 is silent on the issue of gay marriage. But Coalition spokesperson Deborah Hamilton says her group worries "courts that have legalized same-sex marriage in other states use laws like this ... to set precedent." And if Pennsylvania's bill passed, "anyone who has a religious orientation [that is] opposed to this bill ... could be treated as racial bigots." Her group cites the case of a New Mexico photography business that was fined after refusing to shoot a same-sex wedding.
"Secular businesses do not get a break from civil-rights law," says Andy Hoover, legislative director for the Pennsylvania chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. (He also points out that this four-person New Mexico business would be too small to fall under the proposed Pennsylvania law). "Forty years ago, there were probably photographers who didn't want to take photographs of interracial marriages or African-American marriages. ... If we allow secular businesses to get a break from civil-rights laws, the law becomes meaningless."
The Coalition also claims the bill would force religious institutions to violate their own precepts, although the existing Human Relations Act already includes religious exemptions. In fact, the Pennsylvania Council of Churches supports the bill, noting that discrimination lawsuits have been rejected in the past, thanks to existing religious exemptions in federal and state law.
In any case, conservative Republican legislators are intent on thwarting the bill. State Rep. Daryl Metcalfe of Cranberry told the Valley News Dispatch on April 13 that he intends to help "boggle down [sic]" the bill with amendments.
Frankel counts 48 amendments so far, and says "Some of them are pretty ugly." They include multiple attempts to allow discrimination if it's based on "conscientious objection or sincerely held religious beliefs."
Supporters of the bill are countering such attacks by trying to challenge stereotypes -- about themselves and the bill. "There's no better way for us to attack this than in person-to-person, face-to-face contacts" with legislators, said Jake Kaskey, head of the statewide Equality Advocates.
Kaskey says the group wants to work on the amendment that deals with conservative objections to the inclusion of gender identity and expression, even though the identity language is meant to prevent discrimination based on the perception -- whether right or wrong -- that a person is LGBT. More people are discriminated against on the basis of such perceptions, he says, than for any overtly sexual public behavior.
"We're not going to move ahead without an inclusive bill," Kaskey adds.
Frankel says he won't move at all unless HB 300 has a chance to pass. If the measure fails, says Dana Elmendorf of Pittsburgh's Steel City Stonewall Democrats, "Conservatives will use this as a rallying cry and they will hound us until the day we die, really. This feels like the Alamo to me."