Pa. legislators hope to expand statewide protections for LGBTQ community

State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta speaking on the House floor in Harrisburg. (Screenshot via Pa. House Video)

While GOP-led state legislatures are advancing a record number of anti-LGBTQ bills in 2023, the Pennsylvania Assembly’s LGBTQ+ Equality Caucus seeks to make significant pro-LGBTQ changes to state law. With two new bills, state lawmakers hope to formally codify marriage equality as well as expand anti-discrimination protections for the LGBTQ community.

The intent by several members of the LGBTQ+ Equality Caucus is to  ensure equal rights for same-sex couples and also prohibit any discrimination based on gender identity and/or sexual orientation. 

State Reps. Malcolm Kenyatta and Danilo Burgos (both D-Philadelphia), Jessica Benham (D-Allegheny), and Jamie Flick (R-Lycoming/Union), have introduced legislation to protect the right of marriage equality against further high court cases that could erode that right. They also intend to change the language of the statute to be confluent with the 2015 U.S. Supreme Court case of Obergefell v. Hodges that legalized same-sex marriage. The bill will repeal the section of Pennsylvania’s marriage law that only recognizes marriage between a man and a woman.

As the conservative-led U.S. Supreme Court moves to overturn long-established civil rights legislation, there have been concerns nationally among LGBTQ advocates that Obergefell could be overturned. Justice Clarence Thomas specifically stated his interest in overturning the law in his statement on the ruling that overturned Roe v. Wade.

Justice Samuel Alito asserted that opposing same-sex marriage is “considered bigotry” in a recent speech, noting, “You can’t say that marriage is a union between one man and one woman. Until recently, that’s what the vast majority of Americans thought. Now, it’s considered bigotry.”

With those public statements as warning of where the high court might rule, PA legislators hope to secure marriage equality in the state.

Pennsylvania, as well as many other states, retain outdated, unconstitutional and unnecessary sections of law that prohibit marriage equality. Until last year, Pennsylvania retained a law that made homosexuality a crime.

This new legislation would update Pennsylvania’s current laws by repealing the section that states marriage is solely between a man and a woman.

Kenyatta serves as co-chair of the Pennsylvania LGBTQ+ Equality Caucus. He said it’s crucial that Pennsylvania’s law regarding marriage reflect Obergefell v. Hodges, particularly now that it might be under threat. It’s also personal for him.

Kenyatta said in a statement, “As the first openly LGBTQ person to get married during their tenure in the General Assembly, I know how special it is to not only commit to your chosen spouse, but to have that recognized and protected under law.

“Pennsylvania is better when it’s fairer and when we treat all families with respect. The Supreme Court has ruled that same sex marriage is legal, but our statues must change to reflect that. Now is the time to fix this in a bipartisan way, as we did last term with removing homosexuality from the Crimes Code.”

Benham, who is the other co-chair of the Pennsylvania LGBTQ+ Equality Caucus, echoed Kenyatta’s sentiment and said that along with same-sex marriage, there needs to be a focus on marriage equality for individuals with disabilities.

“Same-sex marriage is legal and recognized in Pennsylvania, but some of our state laws still define marriage as only between a man and a woman,” Benham said. “It makes sense to update the language of our laws to reflect the modern definition of marriage and we should do so out of respect for same-sex couples in the commonwealth. There is still work to do, primarily at the federal level, to ensure that individuals with disabilities also have the right to marry.”

Burgos said that moving marriage equality forward can help move Pennsylvania forward.

“We are the voice of the people and the people and our needs as a society have evolved. There are many archaic sections regarding marriage that we need to reevaluate and modernize; it is long overdue. Pennsylvanians deserve marriage equality. My colleagues, and I are determined to move the commonwealth forward,” Burgos said in a statement.   

This legislation also has bipartisan support as Flick, a Republican, has joined as a prime sponsor.

“I believe Pennsylvanians should have the freedom to marry whom they choose. The United States Constitution grants all people this right, per the U.S. Supreme Court’s Obergefell v. Hodges ruling,” Flick said in a statement. “And over 70% of Americans agree that same-sex couples should have the same rights and privileges to marry as traditional couples. As such, I fully support updating our current state laws to ensure marriage equality for all Pennsylvanians.”

The other legislation proposed is an updating of the Fairness Act, known as the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act. This was advanced by Kenyatta, the primary sponsor, on April 14. In at least 21 states, employers, landlords and other business owners are barred by law from discriminating against people based on their sexual orientation and gender identity. Pennsylvania has no such state-codified protections, which means LGBTQ Pennsylvanians face discrimination in a myriad of arenas, such as applying for housing, using public restrooms and receiving even basic services.

Co-sponsoring the bill with Kenyatta are Benham are State Reps. Dan Frankel and La’Tasha D. Mayes (both D-Allegheny), Ismail Smith-Wade-El (D-Lancaster) and Greg Scott (D-Montgomery).

The new bill, proposed as HB300, would secure “the right to freedom from discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodation, for definitions, for unlawful discriminatory practices and for prohibition of certain real estate practices; providing for protection of religious exercise; and further providing for powers and duties of commission, for educational program and for construction and exclusiveness of remedy.”

The bill’s sponsors said in a joint statement, “In the landmark 2020 decision Bostock v. Clayton County, the United States Supreme Court ruled that an employer cannot discriminate against an individual because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. While this decision was an historic victory for civil rights, it does not prevent someone in our state who identifies as LGBTQ+ from being denied housing, education, or access to public accommodations simply because of who they are or who they love.”

The statement continues, “Pennsylvania’s lack of a comprehensive anti-discrimination law is an embarrassment and a deterrent for workers and businesses who could help grow our economy. That is why we plan to introduce legislation to prohibit discrimination in our state based on sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity or expression.” 

On the Fairness Act, Kenyatta told PGN, “Pennsylvania is better when it is fairer. Every one of us deserves a commonwealth that is free from discrimination and hate. This is not just the right thing, it’s the smart thing and the necessary thing if we want Pennsylvania to be the best place to live, work, and retire.” 

Kenyatta continued, saying “I’m committed to working with our partners and my colleagues to deliver these critical protections. We remain the only place in the northeast without comprehensive nondiscrimination protections — that can and must change.”

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Victoria A. Brownworth is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, DAME, The Advocate, Bay Area Reporter and Curve among other publications. She was among the OUT 100 and is the author and editor of more than 20 books, including the Lambda Award-winning Coming Out of Cancer: Writings from the Lesbian Cancer Epidemic and Ordinary Mayhem: A Novel, and the award-winning From Where They Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth and Too Queer: Essays from a Radical Life.