PITTSTON — Carl Halkyer, co-chairman of the Rainbow Alliance of Northeastern Pennsylvania, said Tuesday he has witnessed firsthand the devastating impact discrimination can have on members of the LGBT — lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender — community.
Speaking at a news conference at the Pittston Memorial Library, Halkyer said he has spoken to many people in several communities searching for help after losing a job or being denied housing or public accommodations because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
“It’s unimaginable that in this day and age, in this country founded on the principals of basic freedoms and human rights, that a class of citizens can be denied those rights — and it’s all legal,” Halkyer said.
Halkyer was joined by U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Scranton, who has co-sponsored the Equality Act in the U.S. Senate, and Dr. Rachel Levine, Pennsylvania’s physician general, who is transgender.
Halkyer, Casey and Levine voiced their support for enacting a statewide anti-discrimination ordinance.
Halkyer said just two weeks ago, it appeared two key elements of the Pennsylvania Fairness Act — protections in employment and protections in housing — would make their way out of committee and to the Senate floor for a vote.
“But that effort has once again been stalled by a single senator — Lisa Baker,” Halkyer said.
Halkyer said Baker, R-Lehman Township, has stalled the legislation in the Senate by requesting more time to study the issue.
Jennifer Kocher, communications director in the Office of the Majority Leader, Sen. Jake Corman, said Halkyer’s assertion “just isn’t true.” Kocher said the bills are currently before the Senate Rules Committee.
“No decision has been made on how to move forward with this bill and no single senator is holding up consideration of the issues,” Kocher said. “At this point, we had requests from some senators for more time to review the issues, and a recognition that state House leaders had no intent to run the bills before the upcoming summer recess.”
Kocher said Baker has committed to holding a hearing this summer on the employment issue with the goal of fully vetting concerns that have been raised.
She said some of the issues still to be explored are the application of the law by employers, how the law interacts with any religious beliefs, the impact of any state law on the local communities with existing ordinances and the capacity of the Humans Relations Commission and others to handle complaints.
“There is nothing wrong or inappropriate in taking a harder look at the implications and enforceability of the specific proposals before us,” Baker said in an email. “My intention is to hold a public hearing once the budget is resolved. I look forward to continuing conversation about the proposed legislation and will be announcing details on how comments can be submitted to the committee shortly.”
Levine thanked Casey for speaking out for LGBT rights and for working to ensure that all Pennsylvanians and all Americans are free to be who they are and to love the person they love.
“This has been a difficult year for the LGBT community,” Levine said. “On the heels of celebrations and congratulations of marriage equality just over a year ago, this year, 2016, has been tough.”
Levine cited the actions by North Carolina and Mississippi to legalize discrimination against the LGBT community to the horrific tragedy of the Orlando shootings.
“It is clear the fight to end discrimination is not over,” Levine said. “These events are a clear call to action. This country must do more.”
Levine said as an openly transgender women, she is proud to stand with Casey and on behalf of Gov. Tom Wolf against hate and for love.
She said Wolf signed two executive orders to protect LGBT Pennsylvanians, sending “a clear message that the Commonwealth is inclusive, welcoming and open for business for everyone.”
“This decisive action by the governor, on the heels of actions by North Carolina and Mississippi, was necessary because Pennsylvania lacks statewide non-discrimination protections,” Levine said. “Pennsylvania is the only northeast state without a full and comprehensive non-discrimination law covering sexual orientation and gender identity and expression.”
Casey said the issue is all about equality.
“We must be mindful of the challenge before us,” Casey said. “You can be married on Saturday and be fired on Monday in 29 states, including Pennsylvania. And what has happened in North Carolina and Mississippi is, in my opinion, state-sponsored discrimination.”
Casey said the issue is not about new legislation — it’s about making adjustments to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He said there are five areas that need to be addressed: public accommodations, public education, federal funding, employment protections and housing protections.
Halkyer said while the LGBT community waits for the passage of the Federal Equality Act and the Pennsylvania Fairness Act, the push for non-discrimination continues in municipalities throughout the state.
Pittston established a Human Relations Commission in 2013 with Rev. Samuel Washington named as chairman. To date, Washington said, the commission has not had any cases of alleged discrimination come through its doors.
Reach Bill O’Boyle at 570-991-6118 or on Twitter @TLBillOBoyle.