On Wednesday, July 1, 2009, the Allegheny County Council will vote upon an ordinance which would create a Human Relations Commission to ensure that County residents are not being discriminated against in the areas of employment, housing and public accommodation. No such ordinance exists at the County level. Residents of the City of Pittsburgh have protections at that level and there are statewide protections as well. 13 other municipalities in Pennsylvania have Human Relations Acts of some form.
This particular ordinance includes sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression among the protected classes. As you might suspect, this has been a major bone of contention in socially conservative Southwestern Pennsylvania. The ordinance hearing in January 2009 drew record breaking crowds to testify for this legislation (and a some folks to testify against it such as the owner of Blumengarten Flowers who will hire gay people, but doesn't want them living near near his children.)
Over the past several months, advocates and opponents have rallied the troops and lobbied the Councilpersons to amend the ordinance based on the inevitable configuration of religious freedom versus civil rights. I'm sorry but that is how they frame it — our basic civil rights are an affront on their religious freedoms which are CLEARLY embedded into the Constitution. It sucks, it doesn't reflect how all Christians feel but there you have what grabs headlines and spurs postcard/email campaigns. It has been the issue de jour since Nixon … anything related to “gay marriage”.
Anyway, the ordinance was heard in the Government Relations Committee last week and an amendment offered by County Councilmen Burn, Macy and Robinson added a complicated loophole that will give some religious organizations preferential treatment by allowing them to discriminate.
Essentially, it creates a registry for religious organizations to register as religiously opposed to homosexuality and thus, exempt from the ordinance. The problem for you is that it exempts them from complying with any of the ordinance. In essence, the Allegheny County Council is saying that they will condone discrimination against people of color or Jews or disabled folks in order to appease homophobes in your area. Councilman Robinson signed off on this. Granted, there are state and federal protections for those classes of people but is that the message Allegheny County wants to send to the world by embedding it in ordinance– homophobia gives license for racism, sexism, ageism, etc — really? (Big Registry of Hate pops to mind).
A second problem is that religious organizations receiving County funding can opt to join the Big Registry of Hate and keep their funding. Meanwhile, every other organization in the County that receives County funding must comply. How is that fair or just? Are you content to use your public dollars to fund someone who doesn't have to follow the law? That's absurd. This could actually set up a scenario where a faith based foster care/adoption agency could accept white babies only and place them in white straight married Christian homes only and it would all be perfectly legal. They would get paid for this.
Third problem is that this ordinance forces the Human Relations Commission to get entangled in figuring out which religious organizations are homophobic and which are not. The Constitutions already says this is a bad idea. How on earth would you define this — three gay exorcisms a year and purging the choirs on a regular basis? The Catholic Church music ranks would be decimated in months. A vote by the populace? Buttons? Fred Phelps church fans? What?
Here's a fourth mind blower. The religious organizations that do not enroll in the Registry of Hate would be unable to use religion in their hiring decisions. So a gay-friendly Unitarian-Universalist Church that was interviewing for a pastor could not consider that pastor's religion in their hiring decision.
I. Am. Not. Making. This. Up.
This is a terrible turn of events. A amended, the ordinance is going to pass on Wednesday and a series of legal challenges will ensue. The good news is that the ordinance itself is worded so that it certain language is deemed unconstitutional, the rest of the ordinance stands. The really bad news is that this sets a precedent for HBO 300.
I am waiting permission to post the much more articulate and artful documents outlining this situation that I have provided. I tried to explain to a group of people last night and was met with a series of dropped jaws and disbelief. Several were churchgoers and none thought applying for dispensation based on homophobia would be a good thing.
So, here's the plan. We have three days to try and convince folks to restore the original language. Understand that the vote on Wednesday is on the whole measure, not the ordinance and the amendments. Before we tell them to vote against it, we want to try and reign it in to its original intent.
Call Dan Onorato on Monday. 412-350-6500. The message is simple: Please remove the language from the ordinance that allows organizations receiving County funding to discriminate.
In its current form, this ordinance does not embody tolerance, fairness or equal treatment.
If we can generate 100 calls to Onorato's office on Monday, it will make an impact. How many calls can you arrange? Your partner? Your mom? Your best friend? Your adult son?