Towns fill Pa. void on gay rights

With no state law like New Jersey's, students and others are winning local bans on LGBT discrimination.

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Jason Goodman (left), who got Lower Merion’s Township Council to draft a ban proposal, with Taj Magruder, who wants a similar law in Radnor. (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer)

Jason Goodman didn't set out last year to be the face of gay rights in Lower Merion. He was just a college student looking for a summer job.

But as he flipped through employment manuals, the openly gay resident made a discovery he deemed "shocking."

Basically, he had no equal-employment rights. And state and federal legislators weren't about to give him any.

Anyone could deny Goodman a job because of his sexual orientation, with no law to stand in the way. Nothing federal, nothing statewide - nothing even, the University of Pennsylvania senior said, "in the community that I love and have grown up in."

Fast-forward one year, and Goodman, 21, who lives in Bala Cynwyd in the township, finds himself at the fore of a small but growing trend in Pennsylvania. He is prodding Lower Merion to join 16 other municipal and county governments in Pennsylvania that have enacted laws protecting members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community from discrimination.

On July 7, Goodman and members of his group, Equality Lower Merion, watched as 13 township commissioners voted without dissent to draft an ordinance he proposed.

Next month in Doylestown, the Borough Council is poised to pass an LGBT antidiscrimination ordinance.

And in Radnor, another college student - Pennsylvania State University sophomore Taj Magruder - is trying to replicate Goodman's success in his hometown.

"We're ready to change the world, and we're not afraid to go out and to start doing it," Goodman said of this youth-driven activism.

In 21 states - New Jersey, Delaware, New York, and Maryland among them - his ardor could have been spared for other causes. But Pennsylvania legislators have been loath to consider adding an LGBT clause to the state's antidiscrimination statute.

"The whole world is inexorably headed in the direction of recognizing civil rights for these folks," said State Rep. Dan Frankel (D., Allegheny), who has introduced such legislation for the last 10 years. "As usual, Pennsylvania is late to the table on anything with even a semblance of progressiveness."

On one hand, Frankel said, most Fortune 500 companies provide employment protections for LGBT people. On the other, "I have colleagues who insist that they've never met [an LGBT] person."

In increasing numbers, local governments have begun to fill that void. Area municipalities that have passed laws include Philadelphia, Lansdowne, Swarthmore, West Chester, and New Hope.

Typically, the laws forbid discrimination in housing, employment, and public accommodations based on sexual preference or gender identity. Most set up human relations commissions to investigate and adjudicate complaints, and to assess civil damages if necessary. Many include a public education component as well.

Federal and state laws have long banned discrimination based on race, age, religion, ethnicity, and disability.

"If you fire someone and say, 'I fired you because you're black,' you've got three laws that apply," said lawyer Katie Eyers, who drafted several of the ordinances. "If you say, 'I fired you because of your sexual orientation,' there's no claim that can be brought."

As municipalities consider these laws, the questions are almost always the same, said Stephen Glassman, chairman of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission. "Is it necessary? Is it legal? And how much will it cost?"

To be sure, some of the laws seem more public statement than public necessity.

New Hope, long known for diversity and tolerance, passed its law in 2002 but has yet to handle a complaint.

"We said, 'If New Hope doesn't pass it, who will?' " Borough Councilwoman Geri Delevich said. "So we really passed it to set an example and to deliver a message."

Activists in nearby Doylestown, however, say they saw a need, even in a town with a progressive reputation.

Marlene Pray said a group of LGBT youths had been asked to leave a restaurant several years ago - and had been called "fags" on the way out.

"They called me and asked me what they could do," said Pray, long involved with social-justice and sexuality issues. "But there was no law that had been broken."

Doylestown resident Nancy Reilly, a lesbian, said she and a date twice had been served much more slowly than heterosexual diners seated well after them - by the same server in the same restaurant.

"We said, 'Did that just happen?' " Reilly said. "But it happened twice. We kind of blew it off the first time."

While such incidents might not be fodder for a full-blown human-relations hearing, educating business owners "would make people aware that Doylestown is not a town that will accept that type of behavior," Reilly said. "It is only 8,000 people, but how many thousands of others come here to have dinner, to shop, to do other things?"

Some Doylestown Borough Council members questioned the cost of possibly hiring a full-time human relations staffer - estimated by Glassman to be $50,000 to $60,000 a year.

Councilman Don Berk, the law's leading proponent, responded: "I'm hard-pressed to think of where I would rather spend my money other than fighting discrimination."

Not everyone agrees.

In June, Lancaster County Commissioner Scott Martin proposed dismantling the county's $500,000-a-year Human Relations Commission after activists began demanding that LGBT rights be added to its purview.

Martin said he had acted after discovering that the county's commission duplicated many of the roles of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission. "Tight budget times" demanded letting the state handle the complaints, he said.

As for adding LGBT rights to the county's laws, Martin said that "would not be initiated by me. That's not an issue that I support."

Philadelphia was the first to pass a local LGBT ordinance in 1982; many others popped up after a 2005 Commonwealth Court opinion that affirmed the right of local governments to enact such laws.

Most ordinances tend to pass in "pretty accepting areas," but that doesn't water down their importance, Goodman said.

"Preventing cases and addressing them sends the message that we value you, you're a part of this community, we will stand with you, we will not tolerate homophobia," Goodman said, "just like we will not tolerate racism or any other form of discrimination."

 


Contact staff writer Julia Terruso at 610-313-8110 or jterruso@phillynews.com.

Inquirer staff writer Larry King contributed to this article.