Local laws that protect gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender citizens are under attack in Erie and Allentown. And gay rights activists in the state say the two cases demonstrate vastly different strategies for undermining laws that guarantee equal protection.
In Erie, Republican County Executive Rick Schenker has proposed cutting the county’s Human Relations Commission from the 2004 budget, essentially rendering Erie County’s year-old gay rights ordinance unenforceable. Erie County Council passed the ordinance in February 2002 by a 6-1 vote after more than a year of delays and debate.
As a candidate for county executive, Schenker objected to the amendment, saying gays and lesbians lead “a demented and depraved lifestyle.” Schenker, who headed the Christian Coalition in Pennsylvania in 1994, later reversed his position and signed the bill into law in March 2002.
In Allentown, a group called Citizens for Traditional Values last year launched an effort to repeal a local antidiscrimination amendment that protects gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgenders, but the effort failed. Now the law is under attack by the Alliance Defense Fund of Phoenix, a Christian legal-aid group that is suing the city for what it claims is the city’s broader interpretation of the state’s antidiscrimination law.
“There is clearly a strategy among right-wing political and fundamentalist religious movements across the country to train attorneys to bring legal challenges to local ordinances all across the country,” said Steve Glassman, newly appointed chair of Pennsylvania’s Human Relations Commission
Commission and co-chair of the Statewide Pennsylvania Rights Coalition. “It is not paranoid to assume there is a movement.”
“People all over the country are going to be watching [Allentown] because it has [broad] implications,” said Elizabeth Bradbury, an Allentown resident and co-chair of the Pennsylvania Gay and Lesbian Alliance, which successfully fought last year’s challenge to the amendment. Nonetheless, she contends, “Judge Judy would throw out [the lawsuit].”
The lawsuit was filed against the city by four landlords who contend the Allentown ordinance violates their religious rights by forcing them to accept “morally repugnant” lifestyles when renting homes or hiring employees. The suit also argues that Allentown City Council overstepped its authority by extending protections that are not granted by state law. Attorneys representing the University of Pittsburgh in a 7-year-old discrimination lawsuit over domestic partner benefits have used a similar argument to challenge Pittsburgh’s gay rights ordinance.
Lancaster attorney Randall Wenger, whose firm works with the Alliance Defense Fund, is representing the four plaintiffs in the Allentown case. ADF was co-founded by James Dobson of Focus on the Family, a Christian ministry based in Colorado Springs.
“We think their claim is without merit and that we will prevail,” said Dan Anders, an attorney for Pepper Hamilton, a Philadelphia law firm that represents the city of Allentown in the lawsuit. “The city acted within its authority.”
Though Anders declined to disclose details of the case, he told Out he expects other towns and cities statewide to sign onto a friend of the court, or amicus, brief that is being filed in support of Allentown. According to Glassman, the city’s interpretation of the state law is that it specifically allows for local jurisdictions to create local laws. Any other interpretation, according to Glassman, “has potentially disastrous effects for every other jurisdiction in the state.”
PA-GALA political director Steve Black noted that passage of an amendment to the state’s Human Rights Act to add protection for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Pennsylvanians would make the lawsuit in Allentown “irrelevant.” Black’s group and SPARC are working toward passage of a bill that would add sexual orientation and gender identity language to the state’s discrimination law. “[Ed] Rendell will help us get it passed. It’s great to have a very supportive governor,” Black said.
But Rendell’s support for the amendment, which is currently awaiting action in a state Senate committee, does not guarantee its passage. And according to Glassman, a state law would not help the situation in Erie because without its HRC, there would be no mechanism to enforce the antidiscrimination law.
The Erie Times-News reported earlier this year that Schenker proposed eliminating the Erie County HRC to save the county $50,000 and prevent a tax increase in 2004. Schenker said the HRC is unnecessary because it duplicates services that are already provided by state and federal agencies.
In response to Schenker’s statement about the relevance of the Erie commission, Erie HRC chair Bill McCarthy asked facetiously: “Why have police? Why not just use Pittsburgh’s?” McCarthy, who is also president and chief executive officer for Stairways Behavioral Health in Erie, said he has submitted a business plan to the county council asking for a small budget to keep the office open while at the same time conducting a study to determine the efficacy of the Erie commission.
Charles Morrison, director of the Pittsburgh Human Relations Commission, said the decision to keep the Erie commission should take into consideration the return on the funding invested to keep the office running. “Our appropriation last year was in the area of $270,000, and we’re returning almost twice that for victims,” said Morrison. “We answer the phone; we speak with you. We’re far more responsive to the particular needs of the community that we serve.”
A state amendment, Morrison said, would not have a significant impact on Pittsburgh’s commission, although Morrison added that he thinks it’s important to pay attention to the cases in Erie and Allentown. “We’re subject to attack and we have been,” Morrison said. “We have made a difference in many lives as a result. We don’t get a ton of these cases filed; it’s maybe 7 percent of our inventory. There’s usually something there.”
Morrison said the Pittsburgh commission dates back to 1947, when a civic unity council was formed. The city’s gay rights ordinance was passed in 1990, and gender identity language was added to the law in 1997. “It’s a progressive city, [but] you’d never know it,” said Morrison, laughing.
In Pennsylvania, only Pittsburgh, Allentown, Harrisburg, New Hope, Philadelphia, York and Erie County have antidiscrimination laws that protect gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender residents.