House committee passes nondiscrimination bill

A committee of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives voted to approve a bill this week that would prohibit discrimination against LGBT individuals, marking the first time such a bill has been passed out of committee.

The House State Government Committee voted March 11 along party lines, with the 12 Democratic representatives who were present — Babette Josephs (182nd Dist.), Michael O’Brien (175th Dist.), Louise Bishop (192nd Dist.), Brendan Boyle (170th Dist.), Mike Carroll (118th Dist.), Mark Cohen (202nd Dist.), Lawrence Curry (154th Dist.), Florindo Fabrizio (2nd Dist.), prime cosponsor of the bill Dan Frankel (23rd Dist.), Robert Freeman (136th Dist.), Frank Oliver (195th Dist.) and Greg Vitali (166th Dist.) — voting in favor of HB 300, and all 11 Republicans voting against it.

Reps. John Galloway (D-140th Dist.), Jaret Gibbons (D-10th Dist.) and Rick Taylor (D-151st Dist.) were absent from the committee meeting.

HB 300 would amend the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act of 1955 to add sexual orientation and gender identity or expression as classes protected from discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations.

This is the fourth time that such legislation has been introduced in the House; all previous versions of the bill died in committee.

“I am very pleased. This is historic,” said Josephs, chairperson of the committee and a strong proponent of the bill. “We’ve never moved a civil-rights bill for the LGBT community out of a standing committee until now.”

Currently, 14 municipalities, including Philadelphia, across the state have LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination laws, but about 75 percent of the state’s residents live outside of these regions.

“I’m very pleased committeemembers took the first step in providing basic protections for all Pennsylvanians,” Frankel said. “Pennsylvania is at a competitive disadvantage when it does not protect all of its citizens against discrimination, and I look forward to the entire House voting to pass this important legislation.”

Frankel introduced HB 300 on March 4 with 79 cosponsors, the highest number of cosponsors a pro-LGBT bill has ever been introduced with.

Frankel had introduced the previous LGBT nondiscrimination bill, HB 1400, in June 2007 with 70 cosponsors, and it eventually garnered 79 legislative supporters throughout the 15 months it was in consideration in the House.

Three legislators — Reps. Galloway, Harry Readshaw (D-36th Dist.) and Susan Helm (R-104th Dist.) — dropped their names from the list of cosponsors for HB 300 in the last week, but Josephs said that does not necessarily signal they wouldn’t vote in favor of the bill.

“People can take their names off or put them on, and I think the opponents did get to several people. But I’m not sure that means they’re going to vote against it when it gets to the floor,” she said.

Jake Kaskey, policy and outreach coordinator at Equality Advocates Pennsylvania, said LGBT-rights advocates will be reaching out to legislators to counter the campaigns of opponents.

“We understood after the bill was introduced that opponents would be getting folks across the state to e-mail those who were currently cosponsors,” he said. “We need to speak with them and let them know what the bill does and how it protects LGBT people, and we’re confident that we can retain their support.”

Prior to voting the bill out of committee, the members also voted along party lines against a motion to suspend the rules that would have allowed the committee to consider a possible amendment to broaden the religious exemption contained within the Human Relations Act.

“There is already a religious exemption within the Human Relations Act,” Kaskey said. “What this bill does is add ‘sexual orientation’ and ‘gender identity’ every time the other protected classes are listed; it’s not toying with the current religious exemption at all.”

Steve Glassman, chair of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, said he’s optimistic about the bill’s prospects in the House.

“We are very pleased to see that the bill has been voted favorably out of committee for the first time in its history,” he said. “We understand that there are still issues related to the religious exemption which need to be discussed with legislators on both sides of the aisle.

“But we feel that we have very strong support for the passage of the bill in the House, and we are always happy to work with elected officials to ensure that this legislation is as effective and inclusive as possible while respecting the rights of all minorities.”

Josephs did not give a timeline for when the bill might come up for a vote before the full House, but said it’s something the bill’s supporters are looking to accomplish “quickly.”

“I am very optimistic that we have the votes,” Josephs said. “At this time, when people are losing their jobs and losing their homes, we need to give relief to the folks who are losing their jobs for reasons that have nothing to do with their qualifications. But we do need to take some time to persuade half of the senators that this is something that ought to be done.”

The Value All Families Coalition, a statewide LGBT advocacy organization, will host “Rock the Dome: Pennsylvania Equality Lobby Day and Rally” March 17 in Harrisburg, where LGBT and ally activists can meet with legislators to discuss HB 300.

Buses will leave from Philadelphia and Pittsburgh in the morning and return later that night.

For more information about the event or to book a seat on a bus, contact Kaskey at [email protected].

Jen Colletta can be reached at [email protected].