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Bethlehem City Council Passes LGBT Non-Discrimination Measure

by Louis  Finley
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Wednesday Jun 29, 2011
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Bethlehem became the 21st municipality in the state to adopt an LGBT-inclusive non-discrimination measure when the City Council on June 21 passed its Civil Rights Ordinance.

Mayor John Callahan introduced the measure last September; 16 years after activists first began fighting for it.

Bethlehem previously had no local ordinance that protected its LGBT residents. The Lehigh Valley city also did not have any laws on the books that protected its residents based on race, gender and religion, according to Adrian Shanker, vice president of the Pennsylvania Diversity Network.

More than 100 organizations-including labor unions, the AARP of Pennsylvania and Lehigh University-backed the effort. "While we were leading this effort, it was a joint effort with many of our allies and other movements in the city and region," said Shanker. "This continues to demonstrate it is not a controversial issue. The people who oppose basic civil rights are going to have to learn that at some point. They’re picking the wrong issue."

The ordinance goes beyond sexual orientation and gender identity. It lists genetic information, familial and marital status among protected statuses.

"What we did is we went above and beyond what the state levels protect, and protect more people, particularly the LGBT community," said Shanker.

Those who identify as LGBT have no protection under The Civil Rights Act of 1964, The Equal Credit Opportunity Act and the Fair Housing Act because they do not include sexual orientation or gender identity.

Shanker expressed the need to have fully inclusive non-discrimination laws. "We want to pass a bill to protect everyone," he said. "We want to build a coalition that is about everyone and that includes everyone. Then we’re going to try and pass a law for everyone. It’s a much better way to go about it instead of saying, ’Oh, you forgot one person, let’s add you in.’"

The Civil Rights Ordinance allows Bethlehem residents to go to the city with their complaint rather than filing it at the state level. The commonwealth’s non-discrimination statute does not include sexual orientation and gender identity and expression.

"New Hope has a law and Philadelphia has a law, but every other place in-between New Hope and Philadelphia doesn’t have a law. So if you live in parts of Montgomery County or if you live in parts of Bucks County that don’t have non-discrimination laws, you can be fired for being gay," said Liz Bradley, executive director of the Pennsylvania Diversity Network.

For those who have faced anti-gay discrimination, "They’d have to suck it up ... If someone said we don’t want faggots working in here, it’s completely legal to do because we don’t have a proactive legislature that’s willing to pass non-discrimination laws for the whole state," said Bradley. "We are trying to protect our people because we can’t rely on state and federal law."

Though the bill passed unanimously there was opposition in terms of a few amendments.

"There was an effort to strip the bill of all its enforcement powers and to create an overly broad religious exemption, and those were supported by the Catholic Dioceses of Allentown and the American Family Association," said Bradley.

Due to a procedural error, Bethlehem City Council Solicitor Chris Spadoni has called for a revote, which has the full support of the Pennsylvania Diversity Network. The revote will be held this Friday, July 1, and it is expected to turn the same result.

Those in support of the ordinance feel this is best in order to avoid the fate of the hate crimes bill that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court overturned because of a procedural error.

"I think Bethlehem made a mistake like the other municipalities to pass such special rights ordinances, and I hope with the revote it will be overturned," said Diane Gramley of the Pennsylvania chapter of the American Family Association. "Homosexuals, bisexuals and transgenders have no history of discrimination in this nation. There are no instances of a homosexual or bisexual man being discriminated against in Bethlehem, Northampton County, Pennsylvania or the country."

Gramley further argued the ordinance would force Bethlehem’s residents to "celebrate the homosexual lifestyle."

"Our concern is our nation’s history is being re-written, because when you look at the writings of our founding fathers, who the majority of them were Christians, and when you read their writings and it is fully acknowledged that is who they were, with their Christian beliefs came their Christian values," she said. "What is happening in the country is an attempt to rewrite our nation’s history, so what we want is to reaffirm our nation’s history as being founded upon Christian principles."

Neighboring Allentown has already adopted its own ordinance. And Easton officials unanimously passed a same-sex partner law, making it the fifth municipality in the state to do so.

Louis Finley is a student at Drexel University, and the former News Editor of the schools independent newspaper, The Triangle.

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