The Allegheny County Council approved a bill last week that would prohibit discrimination against LGBT county residents in employment, housing and public accommodations.
The council approved the Allegheny County Human Relations Ordinance in an 8-6 vote July 1, and county executive Dan Onorato indicated later that night that he will sign the legislation.
The bill, proposed by Councilwoman Amanda Green last summer, additionally creates a seven-member human-relations commission to investigate and adjudicate cases of potential discrimination.
“By passing the Human Relations Ordinance, the Allegheny County Council has made fairness a priority,” said Lynn Zeitlin, executive director of Equality Advocates Pennsylvania. “The county will now be a better place to live and work for all residents, LGBT and straight alike.”
The county previously banned discrimination based on race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin and disability.
“With this ordinance, Allegheny County is sending a message that discrimination is never acceptable,” Onorato said.
The council adopted an amendment to the bill late last month that stipulates that religious, fraternal and charitable organizations can be exempt from the law if they can provide documentation that sexual orientation, gender or gender identity “constitute grounds for employment decisions under the fundamental tenets of the religion in question.”
Stephen Glassman, chair of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, said that while he thought the amendment was broader than necessary, it was “the best compromise that could be achieved under the circumstances.”
During last week’s meeting, 12 individuals testified in favor of the legislation and five offered testimony in opposition. The meeting drew a crowd of about 75.
Councilman Chuck McCullough introduced an amendment during the proceeding proposing that the issue be posed to the public through a voter referendum rather than decided by the council. That motion failed in a 9-5 vote.
Fourteen municipalities in the state have nondiscrimination laws that are inclusive of the LGBT community, and there is currently a bill before the state legislature to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Glassman said the passage of the legislation in the county, which has a population of more than 1.2 million, is a major step toward achieving equal rights for LGBT individuals throughout the state.
“This is the second-largest county in Pennsylvania, and western Pennsylvania has a culture that’s quite different from the southeastern part of the state,” he said. “The fact that the two largest counties in the state, in addition to Erie County, are now protected on a countywide basis is a harbinger to increasing the opportunity for expanding nondiscrimination legislation in other parts of the state.”
Jake Kaskey, policy and outreach coordinator for Equality Advocates Pennsylvania, said supporters of the Allegheny County bill are hoping the passage of that piece of legislation could influence the success of the statewide nondiscrimination law.
“The more people we have covered within the state, the easier it will be to convince state legislators to make this a uniform law across the state,” Kaskey said. “This is about fairness and equal treatment for all citizens of Allegheny County. The opposition is trying to make it seem that this is a slippery slope that will lead to a special status for LGBT individuals, but it’s basically just about fair standards in employment, housing and public accommodations.”