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Congregations Come Out to Protect Gays

June 2, 2011 By:
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Stephen Glassman

Abington Township Commissioner Lori Schreiber considers herself fortunate that verbal harassment is the worst thing she's experienced from being openly lesbian.

Technically, in her township, she could be thrown out of a restaurant, denied an apartment, a promotion or a loan, or even fired simply on the basis of her sexual identity.

She doesn't have to worry about any of those things just a few miles away in Philadelphia, which has included homosexuals as a protected class under city law since 1982.

Despite legal and cultural progress in the realm of civil rights, federal laws still do not specifically prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual identity or gender expression. That leaves the LGBT community, and sometimes other marginalized groups like single parents, with no recourse unless state or local policies outline additional protection.

With a recent rash of teen suicides attributed to bullying over sexual orientation, Schreiber decided it was time her township adopt its own anti-discrimination policy.

To her chagrin, the township board voted down her proposal in January.

Not ready to give up, Schreiber and fellow commissioner Steven Kline are turning to the Jewish community to rally support. This Sunday, the two will join the chairman of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, who also happens to be Jewish, and other human rights advocates to speak about the issue at Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel.

"This is the last frontier for civil rights," said K.I. Assistant Rabbi Kevin Kleinman. "It's really sad to know that our country, our state and our township don't currently protect members of the gay and lesbian community the same way they protect Jews and other members of the community."

Pennsylvania lawmakers have been trying unsuccessfully to expand anti-discrimination policies for more than a decade, proposing bills that would prohibit actual or perceived inequities relating to sexual orientation.

Despite that publicized stalemate, Stephen Glassman, chairman of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, said his office still receives dozens of calls a year from gay residents complaining of discrimination.

"That just shows you the need," said Glassman, who is also openly gay. "Most people won't even bother contacting you if they know they're not protected."

Filling in the Gaps

While state proposals continue to fester in committee, Glassman said movement to fill in the gaps on a local level has intensified over recent years.

According to his agency, at least 65 municipalities have passed some kind of human relations ordinance, though only 23 include sexual orientation as a protected class. Of those, all but three established commissions to investigate and levy penalties for alleged violations.

Schreiber said she had been confident Abington would become the 24th after bringing the idea to her 14 colleagues last fall. But the measure was easily voted down, 10 to 5.

"I don't know if that's because they were getting pressure from outside sources or politics -- or maybe there is some homophobia," Schreiber said. "I can't really see into people's hearts."

Kline said he suspected board members may have been afraid that the ordinance didn't make enough exceptions for religious institutions or that it could be seen as a step toward legalizing gay marriage. It didn't help that the police chief argued that an ordinance wasn't needed because the township already employed the Anti-Defamation League's "No Place for Hate" program, Kline explained. That certainly helps raise awareness, he said, but it doesn't have authority to penalize those found guilty of discriminating.

Bob Wachter, another Jewish township commissioner, said he voted against the proposal because he feared the way it was written would duplicate state efforts and potentially expose the town to costly legal battles.

But he said he supported the idea of an ordinance and is now heading a subcommittee tasked with revising it.

Coming from a religious movement that promotes inclusiveness, supporting local human relations ordinances is "a no-brainer," said Kleinman, of K.I. All faiths, he said, should share the value of "standing together in the face of intolerance and pursuit of justice."

For that reason, he said, he also invited other religious groups in the area to attend the Sunday program.

Aside from discussing what's going on in Abington, Kleinman said, they'll hear from a Cheltenham commissioner who's lobbying for a similar ordinance in her district.

"Regardless of whether there's one case or 10 cases or 100 cases, this is an opportunity to put something in place to protect people," said Kline. Everyone would agree, he said, that we waited long enough for laws against race and gender discrimination. "It is a moral and ethical thing to do."

For more information about Sunday's event, call 215-887-8702.

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