Fairness Act protections for LGBTQ+ people clears Pa. House with bipartisan support

In a historic bipartisan vote on Tuesday, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives passed an extension of the state’s anti-discrimination law to protect LGBTQ+ people 22 years after the legislation was first introduced. 

Despite strong and vocal opposition from a number of Republicans, two GOP lawmakers, Reps. Aaron Kaufer and Alec Ryncavage, both of Luzerne County, voted in favor of the measure. 

The Fairness Act passed with a 102-98 vote. One Democrat, Rep. Frank Burns, of Cambria County, voted in opposition.

“There are so many people across this commonwealth, who know exactly what it’s like to be treated unfairly simply because of who they are, and how they identify,” Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, D-Philadelphia, who is one of the bill’s prime co-sponsors, said in an emotional news conference after the vote.

First introduced by Rep. Dan Frankel, D-Allegheny, in 2001, House Bill 300 would amend the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act to prohibit discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity or expression.

“The passage of this act of the House is yet another step to ensuring that every Pennsylvanian is treated with dignity and respect,” Rep. Jessica Benham, D-Allegheny, said. 

“This bill is as simple as it is substantive. It only extends protections that are already granted to individuals on the basis of other categories. And it creates no new rights,” Benham said, addressing what she and Kenyatta called misrepresentations about the bill’s effects from opponents on the House floor.

Republican lawmakers cited threats to religious freedom, scholastic athletics, and a violation of House rules in amending the bill.

House Minority Leader Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, said his opposition to the bill centered on the interaction of the amendment adding sexual orientation and gender identity or expression and the bill’s existing language including places of public accommodation.

“It specifically mentions religious institutions, healthcare facilities, drugstores, dispensaries, so it hits all of those institutions that provide those services,” Cutler said. 

“It’s important to know that anytime you’re dealing with rights, you should never set up a situation, especially in a law, where one right is in direct conflict with another,” Cutler said.

Cutler said an attempt to remedy the conflict on Monday in the Appropriations Committee by amending it to reflect the state Religious Freedoms Protection Act violated House rules. The rules limit amendments in Appropriations to technical or fiscal changes.

In debate on the House floor, Rep. Paul Schemel, R-Franklin, said the legislation would jeopardize the rights of physicians to make decisions in keeping with their personal religious beliefs.

Schemel cited a California case in which a transgender man sued San Juan Mercy Medical Center under that state’s version of the Fairness Act after it refused to provide gender-affirming care. The hospital’s decision was not discrimination but a professional difference of opinion, he said. 

“Even though Mercy San Juan hospital did not do gender reassignment procedures, because it did perform hysterectomies on women with uterine cancer, the court asserted that it clearly fit within the public accommodation requirement of the state’s anti-discrimination law,” Schemel said.

Rep. Stephanie Borowicz, R-Clinton, called the bill the “the most extreme discrimination bill that has ever come to the Pennsylvania state House floor,” and described its effects on the rights of women and girls and religious institutions as “sick and evil.”

“What this is about is force. It always was, it always has been under the disguise and deception of tolerance. This forces an agenda and a lifestyle on any and every person that disagrees with them,” Borowicz said. 

In contrast to the vitriolic opposition, Frankel reflected during the news conference after the vote on how far the Pennsylvania House has come with six openly LGBTQ+ lawmakers and bipartisan support for their community’s rights.

He recalled that his first speech on the House floor was on a Republican bill that would have penalized state universities for providing benefits to employees’ same-sex partners. 

The legislation passed the House with strong bipartisan support, he said. 

“So our caucus at that time wasn’t even supportive of equal rights, let alone …civil protections for public universities who provided these benefits,” Frankel said.

Frankel noted that 24 states have extended discrimination protection to LGBTQ+ people and dozens of counties and municipalities have adopted local ordinances with those protections and the scenarios described by opponents to the bill have not materialized.

Originally published at www.penncapital-star.com,by Peter Hall

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