Hate crimes, other pro-LGBT bills on PA horizon

Lawmakers in Pennsylvania could consider numerous pieces of pro-LGBT legislation in 2010, and activists are hoping that, this time, such measures will see success.

The state legislature has not approved LGBT-specific legislation since 2002 — when it enacted a statewide hate-crimes law inclusive of sexual orientation and gender identity that was later repealed — but such a bill is again wending its way through the legislature.

The Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court overturned the 2002 law on a technicality in 2007, a ruling that was upheld the following year by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

Rep. Josh Shapiro (D-153rd Dist.) proposed a measure in March to reintroduce sexual orientation and gender identity, as well as gender, ancestry and mental and physical disability, as protected classes under the state’s Ethnic Intimidation Act. The bill passed out of the House Judiciary Committee in an 18-8 vote in November and a full House vote is expected in the near future.

“The vote in the committee was so exciting because it was such a large bipartisan majority,” said Jake Kaskey, policy and programs director at Equality Advocates Pennsylvania. “I think it bodes really well for future votes in the House and Senate. I think the votes are there; we just have to make sure activists are speaking to legislators and that the legislators understand how important this is.”

Sen. Jim Ferlo (D-39th Dist.) also introduced a companion hate-crimes bill in the Senate, which is awaiting a vote in the Judiciary Committee.

Steve Glassman, chair of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, said House Bill 300, which would prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in employment, public accommodations and housing, could also see movement in the next few months.

“We hope to be able to move this bill forward in the House early in the session,” Glassman said. “We’re certainly going to continue to push to see nondiscrimination protections in place, but it will become increasingly difficult after the early part of 2010 as we approach the primaries and the general election.”

The nondiscrimination bill, sponsored by Rep. Dan Frankel (D-23rd Dist.), was approved by the House State Government Committee in March, marking the first time such legislation passed out of committee.

“There are a lot of hurdles to overcome, but it’s heartening that we’ve had thousands of people e-mailing, calling and meeting with legislators,” Kaskey said. “We had more than 300 people come to a rally last spring about the legislation and we’re having another lobby day in April so there’s more organizing on this bill than ever before.”

However, Kaskey acknowledged the measure will face an “uphill battle” in the Senate, where it has not yet been introduced.

Glassman said HB 300 could be bolstered with the passage of the federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act, and he urged members of the LGBT and ally communities to contact their Congressmembers in support of ENDA.

“I think [the passage of ENDA] would provide support and political cover for many legislators who have been concerned that they are ahead of the federal government on this issue,” he said.

Last year, Sen. Daylin Leach (D-17th Dist.) introduced a bill to legalize same-sex marriage in the Keystone State, marking the first time ever that such a measure was introduced here.

Kaskey said he doubted the bill would come up for a vote this session, but said that initiative was an important first step for marriage equality.

“What’s great is that this provided an opportunity for people to begin the discussion on marriage equality, but there’s still going to be several more years to go of that discussion,” he said.

Leach introduced his bill shortly after Sen. John Eichelberger (R-30th Dist.) announced his intention to sponsor a so-called Marriage Protection Amendment that would ban same-sex marriage in the state constitution. Eichelberger chief of staff Jason High said the lawmaker plans to propose the bill in “the near future.”

Also, new to this year’s legislative docket will be a bill to strengthen statewide anti-bullying protections, which is inclusive of anti-LGBT harassment.

“For the first time ever, this legislation will be introduced to beef up laws to protect against bullying because of sexual orientation or gender identity but also other characteristics, like race, ethnicity and disability,” Kaskey said. “If you look through the statistics on this — 88 percent of LGBT students were victims of verbal abuse, 19 percent were harassed because of their perceived sexual orientation and in just one month, 39 percent of LGBT students skipped class at least once because of safety issues — the need for this is obvious.”

Kaskey said he could not disclose which lawmakers would be leading this initiative, but that it would be introduced this spring.

Jen Colletta can be reached at [email protected].

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