Authors drafting an ordinance proposal for consideration by Lewisburg Borough Council that would protect members of the LGBTQ+ community against discrimination say its adoption into local law would lend further credence to the perception that the borough is a welcoming place to work and live.
Councilmembers Jordi Comas and Luis Medina helped guide the proposal’s creation to protect those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer/questioning. Councilmember Sue Mahon joined the effort as the proposal continues to evolve two years later.
Federal protections against workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity are being tested in the U.S. Supreme Court. Pennsylvania is among 28 states without express protections from discrimination in employment and housing for LGBTQ+ people.
Comas and Medina said jointly that the existence of non-discrimination laws shows the ideal that “all people are created equal” aren’t enough to guarantee full participation for everyone. Civil rights, they said, define specific categories of people needing protection because of the persistence of prejudicial discrimination.
Draft language for the local proposal has been rewritten and deleted toward striking a balance between the ordinance’s intent and concerns raised by social conservatives along the lines of religious expression and fiscal liability.
“We’re not saying we’re going into your church to tell you how to preach,” said Medina, who is openly gay. “We’re making sure LGBTQ people are protected from discrimination.”
“An opponent can be the most welcoming person in the world, but still oppose the very premise of this ordinance. Fine. That is one's free speech. To me, it still means you are fighting for a status quo that oppresses people and that leaves unexamined the burden of public silence on the real needs of people who are LGBQT+ to equal participation,” Comas said.
There are no immediate plans for the proposal to be brought forward for a full vote by borough council. The latest draft is expected to be reviewed by the borough’s outside legal counsel, a process Borough Manager William Lowthert said is routine for ordinance proposals. That review could trigger additional revisions.
Under the proposal, sexual orientation, gender expression or identity and genetic information would be included alongside race, age and religion among the established classes protected from discrimination in public accommodations, employment and housing.
Eddy Ng, the James and Elizabeth Freeman Professor of Management at Bucknell University, said the human relations ordinance proposal gives Lewisburg an opportunity to show that a rural community can be progressive on human rights issues.
“It sends a signal that the borough is or can be a safe haven for LGBTQ individuals who are vulnerable and face oppression,” Ng said. “The ordinance will help attract LGBTQ individuals and families to settle here, which in turn contributes to the prosperity and vibrancy of the community.”
The proposal includes specific exemptions for religious institutions and “bona fide” fraternal and private organizations. It offers mediation as the only method of reconciliation of a complaint.
The creation of a local human relations commission was scrapped. Such commissions hear cases and fine offenders. The Lewisburg proposal has no punitive measures; rather, it suggests in instances where mediation fails, a remedy is sought through the state Human Relations Commission.
History has proven necessary that written definitions of protected classes be established, according to Jason Landau Goodman, executive director of the PA Youth Congress, a statewide LGBTQ+ youth organization.
Medina, the Lewisburg councilman, is a co-founder of the PA Youth Congress.
“In this country, we have to define a baseline for inclusion in society,” Goodman said. “If we’re saying LGBT people are humans like anyone else, then we must treat them like the other identities that are protected in writing.”
Goodman assisted in the adoption of more than a dozen non-discrimination ordinances in Pennsylvania communities like Lower Merion and West Conshohocken. He said more than 50 communities statewide adopted such ordinances.
None lack a human relations commission like the proposal in Lewisburg does, he said.
“That’s the only mechanism to enforce the local law. Otherwise, it’s toothless,” Goodman said, pointing out that he believes mediation to be a viable way to settle some disputes. “I have concerns with how it’s drafted right now and I encourage Lewisburg to take a really good look at what other communities have done for the past 40 years. There should be no reason for Lewisburg’s council to think they must do this differently.”
“Clearly, the ordinance ‘lacks teeth’ given that it does not attract penalties for non-compliance. However, it can still be effective as most organizations and individuals will likely comply or even embrace the ordinance, because it is good for business and also because it is the right thing to do,” Ng said.