Montgomery County Considers LGBT Anti-Discrimination Law

There are some who believe that Pennsylvania is not progressive enough.

"Pennsylvania is among the most regressive states in the nation for LGBT protections. You can legally fire someone in Pennsylvania because of sexual orientation," said Malcolm Lazin, executive director of the Equality Forum. "Virtually every other class of citizen who is a part of the minority community is protected. One of the reasons why gays and lesbians are not out is because of the impact on their jobs or career advancement."

Montgomery County commissioner are tackling this issue by considering an anti-discrimination ordinance that would include protections for gender identity and sexual orientation. 

"We want to make Montgomery County one of  the most forward-looking and progressive counties in Pennsylvania. And we want to ensure the rights of all people are protected," said Montgomery County Commissioner Josh Shapiro. 

Last month, Shapiro asked county solicitor Ray McGarry to assemble a group to examine whether such an ordinance is legal. 

Lifelong Jenkintown resident Jerry Mitnick, 50, recalled trying to rent a one bedroom apartment in Montgomery County with his partner in 1999. They were turned away. "Unless you've experienced discrimination with housing or employment, you don't understand," he said.  

Some Montgomery County municipalities have passed anti-discrimination ordinances, such as Abington, Jenkintown, Conshohocken and Lower Merion.

The Abington ordinance was first introduced in late 2010 by Abington Commissioner Lori A. Schreiber. It was met with opposition.

"People were horrified that it didn't pass," said Schreiber. "Residents rallied and signed petitions." 

The Abington ordinance-- which calls for a Human Relations Commission -- eventually passed in April 2012. 

"If we are not going to do it on the federal level, we have to do it on the local level to protect people's jobs. This has sweeping implications for LGBT residents," said Mimi DeSouza, a lesbian Norristown council member. 

The Conshohocken ordinance also had opposition. Radnor resident James Schneller, representing an arm of the American Family Association, filed an unsuccessful lawsuit against it. On October 11, Montgomery County Common Pleas Judge Bernard A. Moore dismissed his appeal.

"The standard type of opposition always comes out when we talk about social issues, generally it comes from the religious right and those voices are now getting drowned out," DeSouza said.

"There are 30 ordinances in Pennsylvania," according to Ted S. Martin, executive director of Equality Pennsylvania.

DeSouza is presently working to pass an anti-discrimination ordinance that provides equal protection for LGBT residents in Norristown. Right now, she said they experience "second-tier citizenship."

"It's an interesting symbolic statement. A lot of local communities are taking up LGBT rights as civil rights. Up to this point, people had been unwilling to do that and put it in writing," said Sharon Ullman, a history professor at Bryn Mawr College.

While serving as a state representative, Shapiro was a co-sponsor of House Bill 300, which sought to amend the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act by expanding current protections to LGBT individuals. 

"One of government's primary functions is to ensure the well-being of residents and if a class of citizens can be discriminated against based on gender or sexual orientation, we are not doing our job," said Shapiro. 

McGarry will report back to the Montgomery County Board of Commissioners in the coming weeks on the feasibility of a LGBT-inclusive county ordinance being enacted.

"If we have the authority, it will be on the next agenda," said Frank Custer, Montgomery County director of communications. "If the work group comes back and it finds it legal, they will have to draw up the ordinance and what it will include and not include."

Montgomery County Commissioner meetings are held the first and third Thursdays of the month at 1 Montgomery Plaza in the Commissioners Board Room. Custer expects movement on the ordinance in the coming months. 

Last month, the Supreme Court began considering the federal marriage law, which prevents legally married gay Americans from collecting federal benefits that go to straight married people. This week, Senator Bob Casey took a stand in support of gay marriage.

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