In a 4-3 decision, the state Supreme Court this week said SEPTA isn't under the authority of the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations, which enforces the city's LGBT-inclusive Fair Practices Ordinance.
SEPTA is the region's mass-transit system, serving more than 650,000 riders daily in Philadelphia, four surrounding counties and parts of New Jersey and Delaware. Since 2009, SEPTA has challenged the authority of the city's Human Relations Commission to accept and investigate antibias complaints involving SEPTA.
The dispute wound it way through the courts until today, when the state Supreme Court sided with SEPTA.
Justices Sallie U. Mundy, Thomas G. Saylor and Max Baer filed the prevailing opinion, with Justice David N. Wecht filing a concurring opinion.
"This decision finally resolves the matter," said Gino Benedetti, SEPTA's general counsel. "This is all about a legal, jurisdictional issue. It's not about SEPTA not caring about the LGBT community. Nothing could be further from the truth. SEPTA has — and will continue — to entertain complaints from any of its passengers and employees on any basis, including sexual orientation, gender identity or any other protected class."
In its April 26 decision, the high court noted that the state's Human Relations Act doesn't specifically protect the LGBT community.
"The court found that the city did not have the authority to apply the Fair Practices Ordinance to SEPTA or other state agencies," Benedetti said. "The court also found that sovereign immunity precludes the city from applying the Fair Practices Ordinance to SEPTA."
Benedetti added: "SEPTA is subject to the federal and commonwealth laws against discrimination, and always cooperates with those authorities in any investigation. SEPTA also has a broad policy against discrimination of any kind, including discrimination against the LGBT community."
Justices Christine Donahue, Debra McCloskey Todd and Kevin M. Dougherty filed a dissenting opinion.
"The aim of the Fair Practices Ordinance is not to protect some — but rather all — Philadelphians from the types of discrimination identified in the ordinance. Exempting SEPTA from the jurisdiction of the Philadelphia Commission and compliance with the FPO will interfere with the accomplishment of this purpose," the justices wrote in the dissenting opinion.
The high court held oral arguments in September. City attorneys urged the court to overturn a lower-court ruling favorable to SEPTA's position.
City attorneys also argued that it's in the public interest for SEPTA to be subjected to the LGBT provisions of the city's Fair Practices Ordinance.
Andrew A. Chirls served as an attorney for the ACLU of Pennsylvania and Mazzoni Center, which supported the city's position.
Chirls issued this statement: "The opinion of the three justices turns on technical issues of sovereign immunity, and Justice Mundy acknowledges that the court is not considering the impact of its decision on the LGBT people who ride SEPTA. The concurring opinion of Justice Wecht gets to the very important point that the Pennsylvania legislature has failed to protect Pennsylvanians from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Justice Wecht’s view is that the court does not have the power to substitute its judgment for the legislature’s inaction. So when we get to the question of 'Where do we go from here?' the answer is 'the State House in Harrisburg.'"
Chirls added: "There's also a growing trend that anti-LGBT discrimination is covered under existing laws that bar sex discrimination. So that gives victims of LGBT discrimination a reason to pursue their claims in federal and state forums."
Rue Landau, executive director of the city's Human Relations Commission, issued this statement:
“We are extremely disappointed in the PA Supreme Court’s decision that SEPTA is not subject to the city’s Fair Practices Ordinance. The court’s ruling leaves thousands of SEPTA passengers and employees in Philadelphia without certain protections from discrimination -- particularly claims based on sexual orientation and gender identity, as well as domestic and sexual violence victim status, ethnicity and marital status.
"SEPTA has spent nine years litigating this case to avoid protecting people from discrimination based on Philadelphia’s expansive civil-rights laws. SEPTA owes it to the people of Philadelphia to immediately issue and promote inclusive employment and public accommodations nondiscrimination policies that protect ALL Philadelphians.”