The Urban Affairs and Housing Committee vote marked the furthest such anti-discrimination legislation has advanced in the Republican-controlled chamber. The bill has broad support from the business community and liberal lawmakers, but is opposed by social conservatives.
Ted Martin, the executive director of the Harrisburg-based Equality Pennsylvania, which advocates for gay and transgender rights, called the vote “an incredible step in the right direction.”
It passed, 7-4, after a brief debate in a packed Capitol hearing room. Proponents defeated an effort, 6-5, to add specific exemptions for religious organizations and religious freedom of conscience that also could have limited which public facilities transgender people could use. Opponents warned it could compromise religious freedoms and personal privacy in places like public bathrooms.
The bill would add the categories of sexual orientation, gender identity or expression to a law that empowers the state Human Relations Commission to investigate complaints of discrimination in employment and housing because of someone’s race, sex, religion, age or disability.
The commission can impose civil penalties, such as back pay or damages. A bill prohibiting such discrimination in public services is stalled in a separate committee.
Sen. Wayne Fontana, D-Allegheny, said every Fortune 500 company and 33 municipalities in Pennsylvania have such anti-discrimination policies. It is time for the state to joint them and put “the force of law behind basic human rights and freedoms,” Fontana said.
Sen. Mario Scavello, R-Monroe, had sought to add wording spelling out exemptions for religious organizations, as well as some public accommodations, and said he will try again when the bill reaches the Senate floor.
“I want to clarify that you can’t just say there’s religious freedoms and not explain what they are,” Scavello said.