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Will Keystone State move into the 21st Century?

Analysis: Harrisburg City reforms Human Relations Commission

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“We’re taking all the steps necessary to bring back the Capitol city’s Human Relations Commission,” Russ Boggs tells Central Voice. Boggs was recently appointed to chair the entity now that the commission is being formally reconstituted.

“What we are now doing is creating the policies and procedures needed to function, as well as updating some of the language of the original ordinance with current terminology,” Boggs explains. For example, replacing “disabled persons” with "persons with disabilities”, and similar language changes.

“Any changes will then need to be approved by City Council,” Boggs says.

History

Long story short – the commission was established in the 1980s and charged with protecting the civil rights of what are called “protected classes” in human relations language. In 2010, the commission was defunded and consequently phased out under then-Mayor Linda Thompson’s tumultuous one term in office, 2010-2014.

The commission’s closure was not a nefarious plot to limit civil rights in the Keystone State’s capitol city which has a rich history of civil rights advocacy. It was a reflection of the incisively disruptive financial quagmire in which the city found itself at the time. Since then, major progress has been made in restoring the city’s financial stability.

On Feb. 22, 1983 Harrisburg City Council member Jane Perkins moved that the Capitol city establish a Human Relations Commission.

As envisioned, the commission would administer the city’s Human Relations Ordinance, established simultaneously with the commission. Along with other classes of individuals, the ordinance would protect “sexual preference/orientation” in the provision of what are called “public accommodations”. For example, housing, employment, hotels, restaurants are public accommodations.

A reconstituted commission

With Boggs now leading the reconstituted commission, he has already chaired a series of “organizational meetings”. The first allowed newly appointed commission members to meet and greet; the second to establish officers; and the third for Boggs to call the commission to order with its first formal agenda.

The commission must meet 10 times annually. All meeting dates are published on the city’s web site.

Now starts the public process whereby city council considers the commission’s reconstitution for three consecutive meetings. Public comments can be made at any of the three meetings at the appropriate time during the meeting. After the process is completed, a vote is taken by council.

“We want to bring the commission and the ordinance under which it operates, what it enforces, into the 21st century,” Boggs says. “So far we have one “inquiry” regarding the process of filing a formal complaint. We have no filed complaints,” Boggs says.

Commission members are, in addition to Boggs as chair: Gretchen Little, vice chair; and members Josh Grubbs, Kia Hansard, Amanda Arbour, Amanda Carter, Valerie Carelock, Christi’an Yellowdy, and Theo Brady.

The commission’s meeting dates are posted on its website, as are the meetings' minutes, as they are approved by the commission. “All meetings (with limited exceptions as provided for in established law governing the process) are open to the public, which may comment during a time set aside for comments,” Boggs says.

That’s fake news

Why is this important?

A common misconception when it comes to sexual orientation is that local ordinance protections are a duplication of what already exists at the state-level with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission.

The state-level commission does not have the legislative authority to review claims of discrimination based on sexual orientation and/or gender expression.

Yes, the state-level human relations commission does have the power to address other forms of alleged discrimination other than sexual orientation and/or gender expression. Only local municipalities with human relations commissions that also include language protecting sexual orientation and/or gender expression are able to review those types of claims. Local municipalities under state law are allowed to expand coverage to include LGBT claims.

As of November 2017, 45 of the 2,562 Pennsylvania municipalities have passed local non-discrimination ordinances since 1982, according to the PA Youth Congress. That’s about one-third of the state’s population. The remaining two-thirds of the state’s LGBT population is out of luck with making claims of the local and/or state level. That option simply does not exist for them.

In the last 20 years, Pennsylvania state legislators have unsuccessfully introduced amendments more than a dozen times to the Commonwealth’s human relations law that would protect individuals against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and/or gender identity. No serious action has ever been taken legislative leaders with oversight into such measures. Passing such an amendment to the state commission’s oversight duties would provide protections for the two-thirds of the state’s LGBT population now with such protection.

PA Gov. Tom Wolf last October 23 urged the General Assembly to pass the PA Fairness Act, bipartisan legislation that extends non-discrimination provisions in state law to protect against discrimination based on sexual orientation, and gender expression or identity. Pennsylvania is the only state in the northeastern U.S. without a law protecting individuals from this form of discrimination.

In lieu of state-level protections, the Pennsylvania Human Relations commission has begun to collect alleged complaints of discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. That is not fake news. The step was taken so that the commission can rely on what is actually reported to it rather than guessing at levels of discrimination. Specifically, the state commission is collecting information and, after a case-by-case analysis, actually investigating LGBTQ-related claims in the areas of employment, housing, public accommodations, commercial property and education.

The “regulatory” term for such steps by an agency of state government is “proposed guidance”. In other words, in the absence of a law or regulation, individuals, other agencies and entities, employers, and other interested parties with lives at stake ask for or need guidance in how to proceed.

The proposed guidance states: "Federal courts and federal administrative agencies have held that discrimination claims filed by LGBT individuals may be taken, investigated and analyzed as sex-discrimination claims. The gist of these claims is that LGBTQ individuals do not comply with sexual stereotypes and that adverse action(s) against an LGBTQ individual due to that person’s failure to comply with sexual stereotypes amounts to discrimination based on sex. Accordingly, it is the position of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission that it will take and investigate sex-stereotyping claims filed by LGBTQ individuals."

The guidance also notes the commission’s continuing support of legislation that would expand the state's Human Relations Act to specifically cover anti-LGBTQ discrimination.