Meadville anti-discrimination petition lies stagnant

Alex Weidenhof, Staff Writer

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Of Pennsylvania’s 2,561 boroughs, towns and municipalities, 34 have ordinances that prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Neither the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania or the U.S. government have passed any similar legislation.

“I believe it is both incumbent upon, and the responsibility of our state and federal legislators to enact the laws which relate to human relations,” said Meadville Mayor Christopher Soff.

The Meadville City Council received a petition from citizens in May of 2014 calling for the council to consider drafting an ordinance that would prohibit businesses and government services from discriminating on the basis of a person’s sexuality or gender identity.

During their radio show on WARC, Allegheny’s student radio station, Jolie Wood, visiting assistant professor of political science, and Jackie Gehring, assistant professor of political science, welcomed Meadville community member Randy Herbert-Weed, who spearheaded a discussion on the non-discrimination ordinance. Weed spent much of the show talking about the proposed measure. Despite Weed’s outspokenness on the topic, including the creation of a petition for the measure, the City of Meadville has not voted on the proposed ordinance.

“We support the passage of the ordinance,”  the petition reads, “because it sends a clear message to residents, workers and visitors that Meadville is a city that is welcoming to all.”

In June of 2014, a group of business owners and citizens organized a petition against the ordinance. The petition called for the city council to table the ordinance, claiming that it would have violated their rights under the Constitution of Pennsylvania.

“Such an anti-discrimination law would seek to force citizens, employers and property owners to violate their religious consciences and would be in violation of the religious freedom granted to us in Section 3 of the Pennsylvania Constitution’s Declaration of Rights,” the petition reads.

Meadville resident Garth Valesky, who declined to comment for this article, organized the petition. His grocery store in Meadville served as a meeting and petition-signing location, according to the Meadville Tribune.

Meadville residents debated the issue through several mediums, although the city council never drafted an ordinance.

“It was clear it was a hot-button issue,” said Andrew Walker, Meadville city manager. “[The idea of an ordinance] was discussed in council, there was media outside. It’s an issue that drives a lot of interest.”

As the debate over the ordinance grew, some believed that this statute would have several unresolvable issues.

“With limited staff and capacity, we are simply not equipped to appropriately address an issue as large as this,” Soff said. “A non-discrimination ordinance requires a local human rights commission, with full legal power but no funding.”

The city council, as a result of this issue and at Walker’s recommendation, tabled the ordinance with the intent of reintroducing the issue in 2015. However, Meadville has not considered action this year.

Both Soff and Miller have expressed a desire for either Pennsylvania or the federal government to pass a law similar to the one which was considered in 2014. Miller said this lack of protection creates concern within the community.

“The problem is that you could now be legally married and now legally fired from your job, because there’s no state-wide statute or federal statute that prevents discrimination [due to sexual orientation or identity],” said Miller.

Although the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania does not currently have laws prohibiting discrimination due to sexual orientation or gender identity, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives is currently considering a bill that would prohibit this action. House Bill 1510, with 65 sponsors, currently lies stagnant in the Committee on State Government.

The bill, introduced by State Representative Dan Frankel, was originally brought to the House during the 2013 legislative session. In that year, the bill did not come to a vote in the committee.

While the bill has yet to be voted on by the house, debate over the issue continues.

“There are passionate voices on both sides of this issue, each with valid concerns,” said Soff.