Pennsylvania Gays Rock the Dome

By Daniel Denvir

Originally published on Advocate.com March 16 2009 11:00 PM ET

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Hundreds of LGBT
Pennsylvanians and allies gathered Tuesday at the state capitol
to demand passage of a bill that would bar discrimination based
on sexual orientation or gender identity in employment,
housing, and accommodations.

The Value All Families
Coalition sponsored the rally, held in the Harrisburg capitol
rotunda. Rep. Babette Josephs, chair of the house state
government committee and a longtime gay rights supporter,
delivered an impassioned speech in support of the
legislation.

"I bet 10% of my
colleagues in the house don't think they have a single gay
constituent," she said. "Over the next few weeks,
we're going to show them just how wrong they are."

Josephs also said that
given the economic crisis, "the last thing anyone needs is
to get fired for being gay."

Josephs's committee
approved the bill 12-11 in a party-line vote, with all
Republicans opposing the measure. Next, it faces a tough but
winnable fight in the house. While Democrats have a small
majority, many come from socially conservative parts of the
state. The bill's prospects are not good in the
Republican-controlled senate, but Democratic governor Ed
Rendell would likely sign the legislation if passed.

Supporters, including
religious leaders, union activists, and politicians, described
the bill as a guarantee of basic human rights for all
Pennsylvanians and an important message of tolerance to
potential residents and investors.

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The bill was
reintroduced by Rep. Dan Frankel, who brought similar
legislation to the house in 2007. Frankel says the bill now
stands a better chance of passing because "a lot has
happened in Pennsylvania politics. We've gone from a
red-leaning state to a battleground state to a blue-leaning
state." Frankel said the shift is in part due to the
increasingly right-wing positions of the state Republican
Party, which has alienated some moderate supporters.

This year the bill has
79 cosponsors, nine more than the last time around, including
five Republicans.

Lost in the crush of
media attention over same-sex marriage is the fact that,
according to the American Civil Liberties Union, only 20 states
protect against discrimination based on sexual orientation or
gender identity. Although a number of Pennsylvania
municipalities already have such ordinances on the books,
"nearly 80% of the state's 12 million residents live or
work in communities that do not provide these
protections," according to Equality Advocates
Pennsylvania.

Harrisburg city
councilman Daniel Miller, the city's first openly gay
council member, says that he decided to run for office
"because George Bush was president and Rick Santorum was
our senator." But Miller was also motivated to run because
of his firsthand experience facing discrimination.

Miller worked as an
accountant for a company for five years only to be fired when
his boss found out he was gay. He says that it took him years
to recover economically and emotionally, and that
antidiscrimination legislation will ensure that no other young
LGBT person will have to go through a similar
experience. "It's basic civil rights. So many people
are afraid to be out on the job. It impacts how you
live."

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Opponents of the bill
say that the protections would force religious institutions to
hire gay people against their will and that the law would
be the first step down a slippery slope toward
same-sex marriage. The Pennsylvania Family Institute sent
supporters an action alert asking that they call legislators to
oppose a "radical gay rights bill" and, as a backup
measure, to pray for its defeat.

According to the
institute, "Laws like this one…are being used as hammers
to force Christian ministries and charities to either operate
in ways contrary to their faith and doctrine, face fines and/or
prison, or cease the ministry work. It will force business
owners and landlords to violate their faith and
conscience."

But in a statement,
Pennsylvania ACLU legislative director Andy Hoover says that
the religious right's objections are a smoke screen.
"Federal case law, state case law, and the PHRA itself
exempt religious institutions from civil rights laws when
following the law violates a tenet or belief of the
faith."

Neighboring states,
like New Jersey, Maryland, and New York, already offer some
protections. But the passage of such legislation in
Pennsylvania, a state with strong pockets of Christian
conservatism, would show that the nation's political tide
is truly shifting in support of LGBT rights.