Pa. Sen. moves on hate-crimes bill

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Pennsylvania state Sen. Jim Ferlo (D-38th Dist.) has taken the first steps in the legislative process to introduce a bill that would reinstate hate-crimes protections for the LGBT community in the state.

On Dec. 30, Ferlo issued a memo to leadership of both the Pennsylvania Senate and House encouraging lawmakers to make hate-crimes legislation their “first order of business.”

Ferlo’s proposed legislation would add sexual orientation, gender identity, ancestry and physical and mental disability as protected classes under the Ethnic Intimidation Act.

The state legislature approved such changes in 2002 but, following a suit from antigay group Repent America, the Commonwealth Court ruled in 2007 that the legislative manner by which the bill was approved was unconstitutional. The court found that, as the hate-crimes legislation had been passed as an amendment to an agricultural bill, the legislature violated the constitutional stipulation that amendments cannot change the initial intent of the bill.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court upheld this decision in July.

Currently, the state’s hate-crimes legislation extends protections based on race, color, religion or national origin.

“The Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the Commonwealth Court decision has left a huge hole in the Ethnic Intimidation section of Title 18,” Ferlo’s letter stated in part. “While I believe that this is unfortunate, I have at this time no other choice than to seek a remedy through legislative action.”

Stephen Bruder, Ferlo’s chief of staff, said the senator has circulated a co-sponsorship list among his fellow lawmakers and expects to introduce the legislation by mid-February.

Steve Glassman, chair of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, said he will meet with the senator next month to discuss this and other pro-LGBT legislation.

“I believe that this can pass in both the House and Senate,” Glassman said. “I think it’s going to be a challenging campaign, but I do believe that it will be successful.”

Ferlo said the legislation would allow the state to provide proper protections for communities that are often the target of hate.

“Hate crimes are often the acts of anonymous attackers on people of actual or perceived social groups,” he said. “They can often be far more violent than typical crimes and attempt to dehumanize the victims. By grading these offenses more strictly, I hope that we can further discourage crimes based on hate as we continue to grow into a more open and accepting society.”

Jen Colletta can be reached at [email protected].