By Jared Edgerton, Contributing Writer
New York’s decision to legalize gay marriage brought a ton of national news coverage and a bevy of high profile reactions. In Pennsylvania, gay rights activists are taking a more low key approach. City by city, borough by borough, they’re winning non-discrimination protections across the state. This year they’ve gone 3-for-3 this year in the Lehigh Valley – Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton – and have their sights set on 20 more municipalities.
On Tuesday Bethlehem Mayor John Callahan signed legislation extending non discrimination to protect LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) people from discrimination in housing, employment, public accommodation and education.
Callahan introduced the ordinance in September and it was passed unanimously by the Council this week.
At the signing Callahan proclaimed, “it is high time Bethlehem is no longer the largest city in PA to not have a Human Relations Ordinance.” So far only 21 municipalities have adopted a similar ordinance to Bethlehem, leaving 70 percent of Pennsylvania still without non discrimination laws that protect LGBT persons. Currently Altoona is the largest municipality without an ordinance.
The Pennsylvania Diversity Network, which earlier this year successfully lobbied Allentown to adopt same-sex partner benefits, helped gather supporters for the ordinance in Bethlehem by building a coalition of more than 100 organizations and bringing in at least 100 advocates to attend each meeting. The group saw a same-sex benefits ordnance pass this year in Easton.
Adrian Shanker, the Vice President of Pennsylvania Diversity Network, was pleased with Bethlehem adopting the ordinance, but remains frustrated with the overall progress of a non discrimination law across Pennsylvania.
Shanker is hopeful that Bethlehem will set an example.
“We will continue working with a number of municipalities to pass non discrimination laws, and also relationship recognition for same-sex partners of City employees, which only five municipalities have passed.”
He also expressed tepid hope that the state legislators would use Bethlehem’s unanimous support for the ordinance as a cue to finally pass legislation that protects LGBT persons.
Equality Pennsylvania is the group leading the charge for a statewide non discrimination law, but much of their efforts so far have been local. They are currently pushing 20 other municipalities to adopt non discrimination ordinances.
Ted Martin, Executive Director of Equality Pennsylvania, explained that his strategy of pushing non-discrimination ordinances at the local level derives from a lack of political will in Harrisburg. He attributed this to voters’ general lack of awareness of current laws.
“Many people are shocked to hear that no protections exist in law [for LGBT persons]…The sad fact of the matter is that…Pennsylvania is far behind most other states, certainly in the Northeast, when it comes to the most basic protections for LGBT citizens. Let’s face it, holding a job or having a roof over your head are pretty basic and fundamental to our entire way of life.”
A recent poll by Equality Pennsylvania shows that 69 percent of Pennsylvanians support a non discrimination law. The support is also bipartisan with even 60 percent of self-described conservatives supporting such legislation. A Public Policy Polling survey in April found 63 percent of the state in favor of some legal recognition of same sex unions.