By Sue Kerr
Pittsburgh Current Columnist
When Julie Cantrell learned that the best way to address the lack of statewide nondiscrimination protections for the LGBTQ community was to work for a municipal ordinance, she took action. She promptly contacted her township council.
Julie lives in Peters Township, an affluent suburban community in Washington County. No rural community in all of Pennsylvania has passed such an ordinance, according to the Pennsylvania Youth Congress, the statewide LGBTQ advocacy organization.
But Julie did more than ask. She did her research and presented the township with similar ordinances passed in Ross Township (September 2018) and Mt. Lebanon (November 2017). Mt. Lebanon is about eight miles from Peters, part of Allegheny County, and had passed the ordinance unanimously.
Peters Township unanimously decided not to pursue the ordinance process, after listening to reports from the Township Manager and the Township Solicitor, John Smith of the law firm of Smith Butz LLC.
It is a little baffling to think that two communities pretty similar in most ways could have such disparate experiences of discrimination—Mt. Lebanon thinks it requires unanimous support to address, and Peters thinks it requires unanimous opposition to even schedule a public hearing.
“I’ve seen communities like Mt. Lebanon and others all over Allegheny County adopt protections. It occurred to me that it would be great to see Peters Township lead the way in Washington County,” said Julie Cantrell. ”Sadly, our council didn’t agree.”
The Township Manager made three points in his formal report and he was factually wrong on all three. Note: you can find the embedded video of this report and the entire meeting, including the vote, on my blog.
The Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission issued guidance redefining sex to include sexual orientation, effectively creating statewide protections. What he didn’t say is that a guidance is very specifically not codified law, nor did he explore the caseload and resources of the State Human Relations Commission. In fact, our state government has never successfully passed a statewide right for the LGBTQ community—everything we have is either through court rulings or regulatory guidance. When the State expands the scope of the State HRC through legislation, they will also expand the resources and staffing if necessary to do these extra investigations. The guidance is a step forward, but it is in no way a substitute for local or statewide law.
These types of ordinances require municipal government to investigate and enforce state and federal laws. These ordinances create new municipal laws. They are not in any way an extension of federal or state law. It is a local law that in this particular case addresses a gap in state and federal law. The ordinance will create the law and establish a process for enforcement. No municipal government can just vote to decide to take responsibility for investigating state or federal laws. This is Local Government 101. Frankly, I was shocked that no one challenged this statement.
Local government cannot create these protections so the ordinance creates a false sense of protection Since 1982, 55 Pennsylvania municipalities have created these types of ordinances. Obviously, opponents would have challenged these in court if they had the standing.
The Township Solicitor concurred, referring vaguely to other reasons in his support—reasons he did not mention on the record. So Julie has asked the Township to release that report to clarify what the other reasons are. At the time of this column, the Township Manager was consulting with the Solicitor to determine if his report was a public document.
As I watched the video of this particular meeting where they decided unanimously to table the matter, I was struck by the realization that some of the council members seem to think there is no discrimination in Peters Township, that this is not a problem they need to address. A few days later, a story broke about a School Board Director in the Peters Township School District sharing racist, sexist and otherwise offensive content on his social media channels. His name is William Merrell and his wife Monica Merrell serves on the Peters Township Council. She is the councilor who stated that the Township is in compliance with expectations of nondiscrimination. Her husband has proven her wrong.
At this point, it is imperative that Peters Township advocates for this ordinance take the time to educate members of council about the realities of discrimination in the township and to correct their flawed understanding of how these ordinances actually work.
When Ross Township passed their ordinance this past September, the measure’s sponsor was challenged to explain why it was necessary given that Allegheny County’s ordinance already covered Ross. He told the Trib:
“Ross residents now can file complaints directly with their municipal government and have an appointed board that is accountable to their local officials.”
If Peters Township took this step of creating a Human Relations Ordinance and Commission, there would be a local government entity charged with education and outreach on inclusion and respect. Investigations could be completed more quickly on a local level and a resolution reached to strengthen the values of the local community, values that include respect, dignity, and fairness. If the council is right and incidents of discrimination are very low, the actual burden on the commission and the township would be minimal.
Efforts are underway to address these matters on the state level. Multiple versions of the ordinance have been introduced in the General Assembly with bipartisan support.
Julie is not taking this ‘no’ for an answer. She wants the recommendations and reports released publicly and a public hearing scheduled. She has started a Facebook page for local residents who are interested in this effort. And she’s working with key folks in nearby communities within Washington County to introduce similar ordinances on the local level.
For information on how to get this process started in your municipality, contact the Pennsylvania Youth Congress.