Bethlehem Ordinance Passes First Reading

More than 70 community members were on hand for Bethlehem City Council’s four-hour meeting in support of the proposed Human Relations Ordinance, which if passed, would make it illegal to discriminate in housing, employment of public accommodations in the City of Bethlehem.

Bethlehem is currently the largest city in the state lacking such a law, coalition organizers said.

The ordinance is supported by a broad coalition of more than 100 labor, faith, business, arts, and civil rights organizations, most notably including the AARP, Lehigh University, Lehigh Valley Labor Council, and the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of the Lehigh Valley.

Adrian Shanker, campaign organizer to build support for the ordinance, commented “broad support for legislation occurs when everyone knows what is right – and when it comes to ending discrimination, rational people know that it is the right thing to do.”

The ordinance was introduced by Mayor John Callahan in September and is sponsored by Councilpersons Karen Dolan and Eric Evans, and it passed unanimously through the Human Resources and Environment Committee in April.

The first public reading focused largely on the 18 amendments being considered, many non-controversial; however, there was much debate regarding the religious exemption to the law. Andy Hoover, legislative director of the PA-ACLU and Stephen Glassman, Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission chair, were on hand to provide testimony. Hoover stated that “there is a strong need for a religious exemption, but the exemption should be a balance between religious freedom and civil rights.” Council members voted against fixing the religious exemption by a 4-3 vote.

Liz Bradbury, Pennsylvania Diversity Network, is “cautiously optimistic” that council will make the needed changes at the second reading. “There are minor changes we need to make, but I am pleased that the entire council agrees with the intent of the legislation, which is that people should not be discriminated against.”

Recent statewide polling commissioned by EqualityPA indicates sustained and strong support for non-discrimination laws protecting people on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. Executive director, Ted Martin, said “the support for this is so strong because most people know what is right and what is wrong, and they know discrimination is simply wrong.”

Pennsylvania Diversity Network led the campaign to pass this legislation in Allentown, Easton, and Reading as well. Liz Bradbury, executive director, is “hopeful that [she] can soon recommend Bethlehem as a safe place to live, work or visit for everyone.”

The legislation is expected to be signed by Mayor Callahan. Council has scheduled a final vote for June 7.

Pennsylvania Diversity Network is the Lehigh Valley-based LGBT advocacy organization, and is the largest membership-driven LGBT organization in the Commonwealth of PA. http://www.PADiversity.org

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