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Controversial bill looks to protect rights of Pennsylvania gays

| Monday, April 13, 2009

A controversial bill that would provide discrimination protection to homosexuals and transsexuals is moving through the Legislature.

House Bill 300 would add sexual orientation and gender identity to the state's Human Relations Act, which prohibits discrimination based on a person's race, religion, age, gender or disability.

The existing act, passed in 1955 and amended in 1991, primarily ensures fair treatment in employment, housing and public accommodations.

Supporters of amending the act to include sexual and gender orientation say the move is a long overdue protection that already is offered by neighboring states, several Pennsylvania cities and many employers.

Detractors say it offers special treatment for gays and transsexuals, and could open the door for same-sex marriages.

State Rep. Dan Frankel, D-Squirrel Hill, said he has tried for several years to shepherd the legislation through the Legislature. Since the House State Government Committee in March narrowly agreed to send the bill to the House floor for consideration, this is the first time it's in a position to come up for a full vote.

"It's time that Pennsylvania joins the 21st Century in embracing civil rights," Frankel said. "This is not radical social engineering. This is something that is becoming routine, almost. And it's being embraced in some of the most unlikely places."

Frankel said 20 states across the country have passed or are considering similar legislation, including New York and New Jersey. More than a dozen cities in Pennsylvania, including Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, offer civil rights protection for gays.

Frankel added that all state universities and all Fortune 500 companies based in Pennsylvania specifically prohibit discrimination against gays.

Since the state's Human Relations Act spells out groups that can't be discriminated against, Frankel argues homosexuals and transsexuals aren't specifically protected.

"They are second-class citizens based on their omission," Frankel said.

Dissenting voices

But some local lawmakers disagree.

State Rep. Jeff Pyle, R-Ford City, argues that homosexuality and gender orientation already are addressed in the Human Relations Act.

"I would consider homosexuality a creed, and as such it's already protected," said Pyle. "I read (House Bill 300) as giving advantage to people who aren't heterosexual."

Pyle said his offices have received more than 400 e-mails from constituents about the bill; he said only four are in favor.

"My district is very conservative, and I happen to be one of them," Pyle said. "It's gratifying to know I think like the people I'm supposed to represent."

State Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Cranberry, said he and his Butler County district agree with Pyle.

"I think it's a direct attack on family values by people who just want to force their sinful choices on the rest of us," Metcalfe said.

Metcalfe echoed Pyle's belief that House Bill 300 would extend greater protections to homosexuals.

"I think for somebody to choose the lifestyle of a homosexual, that's their choice," he said. "This shouldn't be considered a civil right. These individuals want special rights.

"I think it's a slap in the face to every civil rights activist," Metcalfe added.

Not only will Metcalfe not support the bill, he'd go one step further: "I support a constitutional change that (states) a marriage is between one man and one woman."

Metcalfe said he's hopeful fellow conservatives will "boggle down" House Bill 300 with amendments and debate, preventing it from being approved by the House Democratic majority.

Frankel said his bill has received bipartisan support: Five Republicans joined the original 74 Democratic sponsors, although one Republican and two Democrats since have pulled their names from the bill.

The only local sponsor, Rep. Frank Dermody, D-Oakmont, did not return calls for comment over the past two weeks.

Calls to local House members John Pallone, D-New Kensington, and Joe Petrarca, D-Vandergrift, were not returned.

Rough road ahead

"We have a lot of work ahead of us," Frankel acknowledged. He said proponents will take care to educate the public and fellow legislators on why the law is necessary.

Conservative groups such as the American Family Association of Pennsylvania fear the bill would require churches and religious organizations to hire homosexuals and "sexually confused individuals."

However, the state's branch of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which supports the bill, issued a statement noting state and federal law exempt religious organizations from following civil rights provisions at odds with their faith.

The American Family Association also indicated employers and public facilities could be forced to permit transsexuals and transgenders access to restrooms, locker rooms and fitting rooms used by the opposite sex.

Frankel indicated opponents are exaggerating and misconstruing the intent of the law.

"There are lots of red herring objections to the legislation," he said. "The fact is, it's not like this is the first time any entity has adopted this legislation. All these other entities are living with this. The sky is not falling in. There have been no systemic problems."

Frankel said younger generations -- the job-seekers and families Pennsylvania should be trying to attract -- by and large don't object to granting gays equal rights.

"People under 40 don't think this is an issue," Frankel said. "I think the opponents are out of touch with that and are trying to impose their religious objections on the rest of us."

Additional Information:

Online

The text and status of House Bill 300 can be found here online .

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