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Pennsylvania Gays Rock
the Dome

Pennsylvania Gays Rock
the Dome


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

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.

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."

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 oneaEUR|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.

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