Allentown, Pa., struggles over antidiscrimination protections

BY admin

June 15 2004 11:00 PM ET

A Pennsylavania judge ruled Monday that a suit filed by four landlords invalidated part of an Allentown city ordinance that banned discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Judge Alan M. Black said that many private employers and government entities have adopted regulations prohibiting discrimination based on sexual identity. "However, it is not for this court to decide whether such legislation is desirable or beneficial or in the public interest," Black wrote in a 24-page statement. "That decision is to be made by the appropriate branch of government." Black said a section of the Home Rule Act, which includes Allentown, prevents the city from requiring businesses and employers to not discriminate based on sexual orientation or gender.

Gay rights supporters voiced their opposition to the ruling. Elizabeth Bradbury, Lehigh Valley coordinator of the Pennsylvania Gay and Lesbian Alliance, told The Morning Call that she "respectfully disagreed" with the ruling. Others had a different view.

"It's a complete victory," Randall L. Wenger, the Lancaster lawyer who represented the four landlords, told The Morning Call. "It allows them to exercise their religious conscience in the way that they see fit."

Allentown has 10 days to file for an exemption. If the judge denies the exemptions filed, the city can appeal to commonwealth court--and a ruling could have statewide impact.

"My initial reaction would be that we will appeal," city solicitor Robert W. Brown told The Morning Call. He had not yet read the 24-page judge's opinion when asked to comment. But he said the decision will have to be made after discussions with Mayor Roy C. Afflerbach and Daniel J. Anders of Philadelphia, who argued the city's case.

Nicholas Butterfield, the city's human relations officer, said he could not say how often he has fielded discrimination complaints based on the new law. In summer of 2002, city police investigated antigay hate mail sent to several city officials and gay activists.

Black's decision doesn't have value yet statewide. "It would have persuasive authority, but not the same effect an appellate court decision would have," Wenger told the Call. "Its only binding authority would be within the county."

Allentown was one of about 10 communities in the state to recognize protections from discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Landlords or business owners in other municipalities that have similar ordinances could challenge them in court and cite Black's opinion. But Black's ruling deals exclusively with Allentown and its status as a city governed by the state Home Rule Act.

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