Allegheny County reviews nondiscrimination law

The governing body of the second-largest county in Pennsylvania is currently considering legislation that would bar discrimination against LGBT people.

The Allegheny County Council could vote on the nondiscrimination ordinance by spring, said council president Rich Fitzgerald.

The ordinance, introduced by Councilwoman Amanda Green in July, would extend the county’s nondiscrimination law to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in public accommodations, housing and employment. The law currently prohibits discrimination that stems from an individual’s race, color, religion, national origin, ancestry and disability, among other classes.

The legislation would also create a countywide Human Relations Commission that would oversee the enforcement of the nondiscrimination law.

Philadelphia and Erie are the only counties that have their own human-relations commissions that review discrimination complaints.

Fourteen municipalities in Pennsylvania, including Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, located in Allegheny County, have similar nondiscrimination laws that include the LGBT community.

Fitzgerald, a co-sponsor of the legislation, said the law would “send a message that we’re tolerant and open, which can help us in attracting entrepreneurs and new business and economic activity,” but that it’s also a simple matter of fairness.

“I think it’s unfortunate that a certain class of people would be discriminated against when it comes to employment, housing or other aspects of life,” Fitzgerald said. “The state human-relations commission covers discrimination based on things like race and religion and it’s high time that all people should be protected. I hope it’s also done at the state level but, in the absence of that, we want to do it at the county level.”

A bill to include sexual orientation and gender identity in the statewide nondiscrimination law died in committee last year.

In Allegheny County, the LGBT and allied communities turned out in full force last week for a public hearing on the legislation.

Fitzgerald said that 65 people testified before the council — 49 of them in support of it and 16 opposed — and that a record 400 people attended the nearly four-hour hearing.

“The room was overflowing. At one point, a building guard came up to me and said that there were over 100 people out in the hallway who couldn’t get in,” Fitzgerald said. “I’ve been on council for nine years, and this was the first time that a guard actually had to tell me that we couldn’t fit everyone.”

Green said she was surprised by the number of supporters who attended the hearing.

“I was truly impressed with the number of people who came out in support of it,” she said. “All of my constituents are within the city of Pittsburgh, which has had this ordinance going on for 20 years, and the city’s still here. I knew my constituents would be in favor of it, and even stretching outside of the city I knew we’d see support, and last Thursday showed me just how huge of an amount of support there really is.”

The legislation was originally introduced with 12 co-sponsors, but four of the councilmembers have since withdrawn their support.

Steve Glassman, chair of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, said the four lawmakers revoked their support after intense pressure from antigay groups.

“The councilmembers were responding to an onslaught of opposition by the American Family Association of Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania Family Institute, who just inundated their offices with objections to this legislation,” Glassman said.

The legislation needs eight votes to pass, which is why Glassman said it was integral that the LGBT and ally communities continue to encourage the current co-sponsors to remain committed to the ordinance.

“The most critical issue at this point is that we need to maintain the eight current co-sponsors of the legislation, and even convince the four co-sponsors who removed their names from the bill to vote for the legislation, and to understand the important need to establish a countywide nondiscrimination ordinance,” Glassman said.

Fitzgerald said the bill’s supporters in council need to ensure that the cost of implementing the ordinance remains minimal, which he said could impact the number of favorable votes it eventually receives.

He added that he anticipates at least another month or two of discussions before the legislation is brought up for a vote.

Jen Colletta can be reached at [email protected].