Lancaster disbands Human Relations Commission

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Despite months of backlash by civil-rights activists, the Lancaster County Commission last week voted to disband the county’s panel that investigates discrimination complaints.

The commission voted 2-1 Nov. 17 to repeal the law that authorized its Human Relations Commission, which accepted discrimination cases involving race, color, religion, creed, ancestry, national origin, sex, age or disability.

Activists had recently been pressing for the law to be expanded to include sexual orientation and gender-identity protections, but two of the commissioners announced their intention to disband the commission shortly after that effort began.

The county operated a joint Human Relations Commission with the city of Lancaster from 1962-91, when the city moved to include sexual orientation in its nondiscrimination law and the two split into separate commissions.

Commissioners Scott Martin and Dennis Stuckey, both Republicans, advocated for the shuttering of the commission, claiming it would save taxpayers $500,000 a year.

Martin and Stuckey argued that those who faced discrimination could file complaints with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, located in Harrisburg.

Commissioner Craig Lehman opposed the shuttering of the commission.

The commission held a series of public hearings in the past few months, during which the vast majority of public witnesses testified against the closing of the agency.

Adanjesus Marin, an organizer of the effort to oppose the closing, said the two commissioners appeared to be unwavering in their intent to close the agency since the inception of the plan.

“When this proposal was first made, it became clear that the commissioners had little concern with what public opinion was,” Marin said. “This proposal was made in a way that was very different from other proposals that have been made to save money since these commissioners have been in office. Generally there are a number of investigations, but this was the first one made without any study or deep discussion. From the beginning, their goal was to eliminate local civil-rights enforcement.”

Marin said that during last Wednesday’s hearing, only two audience members spoke in favor of closing the commission, and both referenced the need to prevent the nondiscrimination ordinance from becoming LGBT-inclusive.

Last week’s vote marked the first time a nondiscrimination ordinance was repealed in the state.

Elsewhere, the Hatboro Council voted 4-3 Nov. 22 to approve an LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinance and create a local human-relations commission to investigate discrimination complaints.

Ted Martin, executive director of Equality Pennsylvania, which also worked to counter the commissioners’ proposal, said Lancaster’s action sets a bad precedent.

“I think the most troubling part of the whole thing is that I have to wonder if this can be used as the beginning of a larger assault on local ordinances. The argument was made that this was for cost-containing purposes. Well, plenty of places that have these ordinances are having financial challenges, so I think that’s something the community needs to be aware of,” he said. “I don’t want to be alarmist and don’t think this is something that’s about to spread like wildfire, but people need to understand that this is out here.”

Despite the outcome of the vote, Martin noted that the initiative to prevent the repeal was able to energize and unify residents.

“If anything good came out of this, it was that a lot of different groups of people came together to say that this was wrong and that this was an embarrassment, everyone from the average citizen to religious groups to the chamber of commerce,” Martin said.

The commissioners are up for reelection next year, and Marin said activists are ready.

“In the primary, and if necessary in the general election, we’re going to make sure people remember what these two commissioners did,” he said.

The commission will officially shut down Dec. 17, and eight employees will be laid off.

Jen Colletta can be reached at [email protected].