Montco considers anti-discrimination code to protect LGBT residents

Montgomery County is assembling a working group to study the possibility of a county-wide non-discrimination ordinance.

A state law bans discrimination based on race, ethnicity, disability, gender, age and religion, but it does not cover gay, lesbian or transgender individuals. 

For example, if a person is fired from a job, denied an apartment, or turned away from a hotel because he is black, Muslim or blind and uses a guide dog, he could sue under the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act.  But a gay man or a lesbian in the same situation would have no recourse under state law.

The working group will be led by county Solicitor Ray McGarry, at the request of Commissioner Josh Shapiro, who along with his Democratic running mate Leslie Richards promised to pass a non-discrimination ordinance when they were campaigning for office in 2011.

"Such an ordinance would ensure the rights of every county resident, including those who aren't protected now, like the LGBT community," Shapiro said.

Shapiro co-sponsored a similar bill when he was in the Pennsylvania General Assembly, but it never came up for a vote. 

Philadelphia has had a countywide ban on the books for more than 30 years.  Erie County passed one in 2002, Allegheny in 2009.  Several municipalities have passed their own ordinances -- including Jenkintown, Lower Merion, Haverford, Whitemarsh, Cheltenham and Abington.  But those measures did not come without controversy.

After Abington considered such an ordinance in 2011, the American Family Association of Pennsylvania launched an online petition and letter-writing campaign.  The association argued that "passage of these ordinances would mean men who think they are women must be permitted to use the women's restroom in all pubic accommodations and the women's locker room/shower facilities at the local Y, pool or health club."  They said it would be unfair to force Christian businesses to provide services for gay weddings, among other things.

Another organization, Abington Against Discrimination and Defamation, formed to counter those claims and push for the ordinance to be reconsidered.  In April 2012, the township commissioners voted 10-5 in favor of the anti-discrimination ban.

Montgomery County's working group will first have to determine whether such an ordinance is legal under the Class 2A County Code.  So far, all of the counties that have passed such ordinances are "home rule" counties, according to a Montgomery County press release.