6,000 Letters from ALL-ACROSS PA!

November 30, 2007

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Over the summer and fall, we’ve been criss-crossing the entire state and collecting letters in support of non-discrimination legislation to send to state legislators.  We’ve collected these at Pride events, college campuses, parties, and right on the street— and this week we were finally ready to send them to the statehouse!

Over 6,000 (!!!) letters were sent to 94% of the 203 state representatives and all 50 state senators. Think about that for a minute– almost every single house member, even those from crazy-small districts in the middle of nowhere, just received physical letters from their own constituents asking them to support non-discrimination legislation for the LGBT community.

Amazing.  Thank you to everyone who has helped collect these letters—and keep them coming!

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Fall Intern Love

November 29, 2007

As crazy as it might seem, we are nearing the end of the semester, and will soon say goodbye to some of our amazing interns this fall.  Both our legal and outreach interns spend countless hours working directly with clients, organizing events, and helping our small staff make an impact for the LGBT community in Pennsylvania.   Without the tireless efforts of our interns each semester, we would not have as great an impact in the state.

Thanks to our legal interns for a great semester-  Amber, Eugena, Daniel, Caleb, and Thomas!

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And thank you to our outreach interns for all your hard work– Airnesha and Aidan!

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Bring on the Youth!!

November 19, 2007

Hi! My name is Amber Hikes and I am a Master’s candidate in Social Work at the University of Pennsylvania. I’m interning at Equality Advocates this year and helping out with the Youth Law Project.

This project is so important because LGBT youth face an arsenal of discrimination in their everyday lives. Regardless of where they reside geographically, they are no strangers to school harassment, employment discrimination and even police brutality. In order to provide services for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) youth and families in Pennsylvania, Equality Advocates recently employed a new lawyer, Katie Stewart, and took on a social work intern (me) to focus solely on this population. The Youth Law Project (YLP) strives to provide direct legal services, advocacy, education and outreach to children and youth affected by anti-lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender bias in Pennsylvania.

To bring in more clients, we’ve designed a presentation with scenarios and interactive discussions for participants. This presentation highlights typical discrimination and harassment situations in school, at work, and at home and allows the youth to discuss their experiences with their peers. Within the presentation, Katie and I also take time to respond to youth questions and provide insight on how to effectively address and handle discrimination issues from a legal and social work perspective. Since it is such a new concept, Katie and I are working on creating brochures and flyers about the project. We are also visiting support groups and youth centers throughout the state. Last month, we did a big workshop at the Attic Youth Center here in Philly. This was an awesome presentation because Jake and Aidan joined us. Attic youth came out and so did representatives from Rainbow Room in Bucks County. The participants discussed the details of real-life scenarios called “Ring the Alarm” and “No More Drama”. The event was a great time and there will be many more like it in the future. With these efforts, we hope to encourage LGBT youth to call the agency’s legal hotline for legal advice or representation.

Although the project is in its infancy, the YLP is a strong program geared towards long-term results and success with the LGBT youth population. The project seeks to address a wide variety of individuals. These youth, with diverse backgrounds, experiences and skill sets should all be able to find a place within the Youth Law Project. Whether it be through legal advice, education or even direct representation, the unprecedented services of the Youth Law Project offer valuable aid for many LGBT youth.


LIVE-BLOGGING the State Government Committee Hearing!

November 15, 2007

And it’s over! Thank you to State Government Committee Chair Josephs for holding these important hearings, Rep. Frankel for introducing this bill, and everyone who testified and attended the hearings in Philly, Pittsburgh, and Erie!

UPDATE VI: Last speaker is Larry Frankel, Legislative Director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania. Mr. Frankel prepared his testimony to address the religious exemption issue and states there are already existing protections for religious freedom under the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act, and there already is judicially created protection for religious freedom. A provision of the existing Pennsylvania Human Relations Act — Section 5(h) (10) — already provide religious institutions statutory language providing them with accomodation. Over the last 35 years, courts have additionally created a “ministerial exception” that, in essence, bars the judicial branch of government from considering civil rights claims if there is any threat to a religious institution’s right to make employment decisions concerning who will perform spiritual functions. Mr. Frankel explains, “This exception does not apply just to clergy. Lawsuits by music directors, parochial school teachers…have all been barred. In assessing whether the ministerial exception can be applied, courts look at whether the employee’s primary functions serve the ‘spiritual and pastoral mission’ of the employer.” The third circuit specifically has ruled on a broad ministerial exception. “The Third Circuit has held that the ministerial exception operates as a constitutionally mandated bar to the consideration of any claim related to a religious institution’s right to select who would perform ministerial functions – whether that claim is governed by federal or state law. ” Also, in a footnate of a U.S. District Court Eastern District of PA decision the Court wrote, “The Free Exercise Clause precludes the application of the…PHRA to religious organization employees such as ministers, teachers, and other individuals whose duties are ‘integral to the spiritual and pastoral mission.'”

“I bring all <of this> to your attention to demonstrate that the courts have already recognized the very accomodation that is being sought by some of the opponents of HB 1400. The judiciary has gone to great lengths to craft a ministerial exception..” Additionally, the Pennsylvania Religious Freedom Protections Act provides an additional layer of protection for religious freedom. “You can easily protect the civil rights of all Pennsylvanians and prohibit discrimination on the bais of sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression without fear of interfering with religious freedom.”

UPDATE V: Back from break and speaking now are some folks we’re all familiar with. Our Executive Director, Stacey Sobel, is speaking on behalf of the organization and also the Value All Families Coalition. “Thank you for holding these hearings…<they will> help get rid of the myths surrounding this legislation…support for this legislation has grown each year in the legislature…the Value All Families Coalition is comprised of more than 50 organizations that have supported this type of legislation…and there are many non-coalition members (like the PA Association of Realtors) who support HB 1400. In statewide polling completed on November 12, 2007 … 71 % of Pennsylvanians support this legislation– 86% said there should be workplace equality for all people- we aren’t asking the legislature to go out on a wing here. Every segment of people across the state support this legislation. Even 56% of SELF-described conservatives support this legislation. At Equality Advocates we receive about 700 calls each year for help with 30 different legal issues — 22% of the calls we get are because of discrimination in the workplace. I am here today to speak for those who cannnot speak for themselves.

Katie Eyer, attorney with Salmanson Goldshaw, PC and former Employment Rights Project Attorney with Equality Advocates, is speaking about her experience spending two years as the nation’s only attorney dedicated exclusively to representing LGBT claimants in employment matters. When I began working for Equality Advocates, I “was stunned by both the frequency and the severity of the calls of employment discrimination that we received.” She also asked the Committee to keep in mind that Equality Advocates only receive a FRACTION of the actual instances of anti-LGBT discrimination in the state. This legislation is absolutely necessary because discrimination absolutely exists. She goes on to speak about why bringing a claim under current sex discrimination laws, or under a local ordinance, is woefully inadequate.

Marissa Coute, a Steelworkers union rep who identifies as trangender, is speaking on Mara Keisling’s, Executive Director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, behalf. Gender identity refers to one’s inner-sense of their gender. Traditionally we think of gender identity protections as there to only protect transgender people (which they do), but they protect all gender non-conforming people. Everyone has a gender identity– most people’s identity matches their sex at birth. For some, their identity does not match their sex at birth. Transgender is an all-encompassing term that includes: transsexuals, cross-dressers, and gender non-conforming people. Thirteen states have gender identity protections on the books. Many employers already realize that protecting their LGBT employees is good for business. Transgender people are extraordinary — think about the courage it takes to look inside and think about who you really are.

Rep. Frankel asks that if ENDA passes nationally, is there still a need for HB 1400? Absolutely. HR 3685 is limited — it only covers employment discrimination (HB 1400 covers employment, housing, and public accomodations discrimination), and only protects against discrimination based on sexual orientation (and not gender identity). Chair Josephs goes on to talk about the real need to include gender identity because it protects heterosexual people who are gender non-conforming.

UPDATE IV: Andrew Susko, President of the Pennsylvania Bar Association (PBA), is next. ” The PBA holds itself to the principle that the law itself must ensure that no one should be subjected to discrimination.” On June 22, 2007 the PBA resolution in support of amending the PA Human Relations Act to include protections against discrimination for LGBT people in housing, employment, and public accomodations. “Although it is admirable that local governments have provided protections, this piecemeal approach to protection will lead to problems in the future. All people in PA must be able to receive redress from harm — no matter where they live… By amending the PA human relations act…PA will be joining a significant number of states who have already taken this important step forward…In passing House Bill 1400, PA will be continuing its laudable tradition of protecting civil and legal rights.” The Commonwealth has long been a leader in protecting civil rights (civil rights legislation was passed in PA much earlier than it was federally). “This is a matter that goes to the essence of civil and legal matters— that all people under the law are entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and a system of laws that require everyone is treated the same under the law.”

On deck is Rev. Timothy Safford, Rector of Christ Church Philadelphia and also speaking on behalf of the Faith Coalition for Pennsylvania Families. He is joined by Ken Oakes who works with the LGBT community at the church. Christ Church was founded in 1695 and was the first test of the “faith experiment.” “Religious organizations, while honoring the seperation of church and state, must be called to the same standard that the state expects in the conduct of its business….. By adding these protections, that does not mean that the Roman Catholic Church will suddenly have to ordain an openly gay man– this will not affect the dogmatic aspects of their religious organization…. However, almost every church have regular employees providing regular public services–social work services, drug rehab services, hospitals, etc. Each religious organization must be held to the standard that all other employers are held to…..As legislators, you all know that fear comes into play with this– the fear of alienating the religious base, going up against the powerful “religious right,” but legislators need to do what is best for the PEOPLE and not buckle under that pressure. I urge you not to extend the religious exemptions and buy into that fear– I urge you to have the courage that William Penn had…..You cannot give even religious institutions the power to discriminate.”

In further discussing the religious exemption, Rev. Safford and Rep. Josephs speaks about the distinctions in the Church between employees — there are Ministers, and there are secretaries. Some who work for a religious organization are not in “religious functions.”

Susan Boyle, the Minority Executive Director of the Committee, asked to further explain differences between tents of the church and beliefs of the congregants. “Every church represents certain religious beliefs- a doctrine or dogma. Generally tents then flow from that– that talk about marriage, pre-martial sex, etc. EVery religious organization is allowed in the hiring of people that work with the faith are allowed to apply these standards. What I’m saying is that these organizations should not be able to apply those “faith standards” to just a secretary, or janitor.”

Now we get to take a short break!

UPDATE III: Joseph Mahoney, Executive Vice President of the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, is speaking now. The Chamber represents approximately 5,000 member companies in the region. “As a fundamental business principle, we believe that discrimination in the workplace is unacceptable…To attract the best workplace, employers must foster an environment where judgement is based on productivity and performance, and where creativity and knowledge are exchanged freely. This type of workplace atmosphere unquestionably benefits both employers and employees….Business leaders support equality in the workplace…Employers promote equality not only because it is the right and moral thing to do, but also because it makes good business sense.”

Rep. Frankel asked Mr. Mahoney to elaborate on the businesses that already protect LGBT people- he mentioned PNC Bank, Melon Financial, Comcast etc. Rep. Frankel also said that one of the arguments he hears against the bill is that it would cost businesses extra costs. Mr. Mahoney answers, “I’ve never heard any of our members make that argument.”

Rep. Josephs asked whether these mandates would cost all businesses, including smaller and medium-sized businesses. Mr. Mahoney mentioned he will try and poll his membership on this issue specifically — and that many smaller businesses don’t have “specific policies” but discrimination is not tolerated. Rep. Frankel is thanking the business community for coming out in support of the bill and testifying in-person today.

UPDATE II: Next up, Rachel Lawton, Deputy Director of the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations, and Stephen Glassman, Chair of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission. Rachel spoke about the history of the Philly Commission (did you know that Philly was the first city in the United States to have in its basic charter a provision for an official civil rights agency?) and the work they do. “Amending a law to include protection will not eliminate discrimination, but it will give victims a course of action to pursue a remedy…With a 25 year history of sexual orientation protection in Philadelphia we can conclusively say that adding this protection and the subsequent gender identity 5 years ago, have not had a significant financial cost to the city and the agency. It has had a dramatic impact withh regard to deterring LGBT discrimination.”

In 2002, 384 employment discrimination cases were filed and of those 22 had sexual orientation as a basis (no gender identity cases filed). In 2006, 256 cases were filed and 14 were based on sexual orientation and 3 were based on gender identity.

Chairman Glassman is speaking now. “In many areas of Pennsylvania, local areas already protect lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals… The Commonwealth has long been a leader in the area of civil rights and equality under the law. It is only just to extend this principle of equality to a group of people who have a long history of being unfairly denied jobs, housing, and other basic human rights.”

UPDATE: This live-blogging thing is awfully exciting! There’s a nice group of people that have come to listen to the testimony and show their support for the bill. Rep. Babette Josephs, Chair of the State Government Committee, just called the hearing to order and Rep. Frankel, prime sponsor of the bill, is speaking. Rep. Frankel mentions that a majority of Americans live in one of the 20 states that ban employment discrimination based on sexual orientation — including those who live in the states that surround Pennsylvania (Maryland, New Jersey, and New York). Ninety percent of the Fortune 500 companies include sexual orientation in their non-discrimination policies, and 124 of the 500 companies include transgender people in their policies.

“We don’t know who the next Einstein or Jonas Salk will be. What if he – or she – happens to be gay, and out outdated law drives him or her away? … I want the creative class to grow and thrive in Pennsylvania…All othat these fellow citizens of ours want is a level playing field, so they can compete and win. I want to close by quoting the late Governor Casey. He used to say, ‘What did you do when you had the power? By passing this one bill, we can make life better for hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens. We don’t have a single Pennsylvanian to waste.”

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We’re up-and-running here at the Friends Center for the State Government Committee Hearing on House Bill 1400. Things should be getting started in about 15 minutes— so check back through the afternoon to read about the testimony given in support of this important bill!!


Philly Hearing Tomorrow on HB1400!

November 14, 2007

Tomorrow the State Government Committee will be holding their third hearing on House Bill 1400 – legislation to protect LGBT people against discrimination in housing, employment, and public accomodations – in Philadelphia! Hearings were held in early October in both Pittsburgh and Erie and were an amazing success. At tomorrow’s hearing we’ll hear testimony from the ACLU of Pennsylvania, the Faith Coalition for Pennsylvania Families, the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, and others about the importance of passing this important piece of legislation.

If you’re in the southeastern part of the state, please come by to show your support! The hearing is from 1:00 – 4:00 pm at the Friends Center at 1501 Cherry Street.

However, if you’re unable to make the hearing in-person, you’re in luck! We will be LIVE-BLOGGING (!!!) the entire hearing right here. This is our/my first attempt at live-blogging, so I’m hoping everyone will check-in for updated information on what’s happening.

Until tomorrow!


Pennsylvania Representatives Vote YES on ENDA!

November 9, 2007

The United States House of Representatives passed the Employment Non-Discrimination Act by a vote of 235-184 on Wednesday, Nov. 7. While we are disappointed that ENDA did not include protections for transgender people, it is still quite great that such a great number of Representatives voted in favor of fairness and against discrimination in the workplace.

Fifteen of Pennsylvania’s nineteen House members voted in favor of this important bill– including FOUR Republicans: Dent, Gerlach, English, and Platt. With such strong Republican support, we are looking forward to working with State Republication Senators and Representatives to pass HB 1400 and SB 761- statewide non-discrimination legislation.


Musings of an Intern: Food, Fun and Advocacy

November 6, 2007

This weeks theme is advocacy:

On Tuesday October 20, Jake and I packed ourselves back into the minivan and headed to the burbs of Philadelphia. Our destination? Lansdowne in Delaware County. The Lansdowne Human Relations Commission had asked us to come facilitate an advocacy workshop for residents in the area.

The workshop went smoothly; first discussing the two bills, house bill 1400 and senate bill 761 and what they would actually do. Then we went over the talking points for the bills, most of which explain why the bills are important, such as: keeping Pennsylvania competitive among its surrounding states who already have sexual orientation and gender identity and expression in their state-wide non-discrimination policies. After the talking points the participants were split into two groups and told to come up with ideas for advocacy that either individuals or the group could do.

All in all the night was a great success and through the work of those who volunteered to keep the advocacy ideas rolling the group as a whole will do wonderful work. We had 26 participants and 2 protesters. I want to say a special thanks to Joan Reivich, Chair of the Lansdowne Human Relations Commission for organizing the event, Lansdowne’s Major Jayne Young and Council-members Ann Hill and Steve Wagner who came. As well as, Carlene Neal and Millie Vega from the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission for attending. 

I hope to see further advocacy efforts from the Lansdowne area. Again Thank you to everyone who attended.

‘Til next time,

Aidan