Luzerne County Council rejects proposed ordinance targeting sexual orientation discrimination

By Jennifer Learn-Andes - | August 9th, 2016 10:41 pm

After emotional debate Tuesday night, most Luzerne County Council members rejected an ordinance intended to prevent discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation.

Council members Rick Williams and Jane Walsh Waitkus were the lone supporters, arguing the ordinance shows the county endorses equal access to employment, housing, post-secondary education and businesses open to the general public.

Walsh Waitkus said there’s a “misconception” among many — including some citizens who inundated council members with emails opposing the legislation Tuesday — that the area always has been welcoming. She said immigrants from Poland, Italy and other countries were only “allowed to step foot in Luzerne County” decades ago because they provided labor in coal mines.

“It’s just simply the right thing to do in 2016,” she said of the ordinance.

Williams said state officials have failed to provide protection to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender residents, and there’s no guarantee proposed state legislation addressing this issue will pass.

Seven council members voted against the ordinance. The remaining council members — Tim McGinley and Robert Schnee — abstained, citing the need for more legal clarification.

Councilman Harry Haas said he supports all residents, including the LGBT community, and maintained policies targeting specific groups are discriminatory and lead to more division.

“I’m here to protect all of you - anybody — heterosexual, homosexual, multi-sexual — I don’t even know what the terms are anymore because it’s getting out of control,” he said.

He said some are using laws to make people “feel good about lifestyles” that are “incompatible” with the religious views of others. Those who challenge often are labeled as bigots, he said.

“You are so much more than who you sleep with. You are so much more than what your anatomy is or what anatomy you want,” Haas said. “This is not about bigotry. This is about loving and caring and respecting everybody.”

Councilwoman Kathy Dobash said the state should “take the lead.”

Councilman Eugene Kelleher said he’d only support a general discrimination ban because the proposed one doesn’t cover every conceivable reason any citizen may face discrimination. He also questioned the need to create another board — a county Human Relations Commission — as proposed in the ordinance.

Linda McClosky Houck, the council chairwoman, said the ordinance has no “teeth” because the county has no legal authority to impose fines or other punishment. She said she won’t support a policy that “just makes us feel better about ourselves” without enforcement power.

She said the council publicly sent a message it supports the LGBT community in 2012 with the passage of a personnel code that includes equal opportunity for county government jobs and promotions without regard to sexual orientation, gender expression or identity, genetic information or gender.

Similar language could be added to other county policies, such as purchasing, she said.

Williams said the proposed ordinance would cover businesses and landlords outside county government and provide an outlet for victims, even if they ultimately must file a court action to further their claims.

Several citizens also weighed in both for and against the proposal.

Rebecca Boerger, Kingston, said such ordinances are good public policy and could attract employers.

“I think many of the problems we have come from our fear and our anger and our divisions between people, and anything we can do to help us be together is a good thing,” Boerger said.

Brian Shiner, also of Kingston, said the LGBT community has no express protection under state or federal law.

Exeter Township resident Rebekka Parry said such ordinances can lead to lawsuits against businesses that can’t provide services, such as a venue for a same-sex wedding, due to religious beliefs. The council also should allow more time for public comment before voting on an ordinance with such “far-reaching effects,” she said.

By Jennifer Learn-Andes

Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.