Council Votes 6-1 to include 'Sexual Orientation'

by Michael Miller , 2/27/02

Editor's note: Erie County Executive Rick Scenker signed the ordinance into law Friday March 8th.

Hooray! picThe revised Erie County Human Relations Commission Ordinance which includes protection from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation was put to a final vote by County Council Tuesday February 26th in Courtroom H of the Erie County courthouse at 7PM.

After about an hour of public comment and the introduction of three amendments, as well as some comment from most of the Council members, the ordinance (as amended) was passed by an overwhelming margin of 6 to 1 - Chairman David E Mitchell alone dissenting.

So the ordinance passed!

Hooray! Or, almost, anyway.

It is now up to Erie County Executive Rick Schenker to sign the ordinance and make it law. He has 14 days to do so. Then it will no longer be legal for people of any sexual orientation (actual or perceived) to be discriminated against in employment, housing or access to public accommodations.

Unless Mr. Schenker were to veto the ordinance...

Before taking office as County Executive in early January, Rick Schenker had previously said that he would veto the ordinance, but has since reconsidered. In a TV 35 News interview after Tuesday's County Council vote, Schenker said he wouldn't automatically veto it, that he had been working with County Council on the matter and would consider signing it if properly amended.

Those amendments as worked out and described by council member Joy Greco (all of which were passed by Council) include the following clarifications of the scope and usage of the ordinance including:

a clarification of the meaning of "sexual orientation" so as not to be construed as including anything that might be considered a crime under Pennsylvania Title 18 or Federal law (this is to counter the crazy argument that pedophilia is also a sexual orientation);

disallowal of the ordinance as a legal recourse for securing employers' recognition of same sex partner benefits such as access to health insurance;

penalties for those who file frivolous claims;

exemptions for religious organizations and fraternities for whom specific sexual orientation identities constitute a genuine disqualification for employment/membership;

a severability clause allowing for the ordinance to still function as law even if select portions of the ordinance are later repealed (presumably so that sexual orientation could be pulled out of the ordinance later if found to be problematic, without voiding the effect of the entire ordinance);

and an outline providing for and expanding the Human Relations Commission's powers.

It was pretty clear that many of these amendments were devised to stem arguments raised either by the Executive's administration or the letters/public comments of specific citizens so that passage of the ordinance would be facilitated.

You can read the full ordinance as passed as an Adobe Acrobat PDF. (If you don't have it on your system, get a free copy of Adobe's PDF reader...)

Indeed many of those citizens were present, accounting for about 1/4 to 1/3 of the over 100 people in attendance at the meeting and half of the speakers. All the same group - Reverend Patrick Kennedy of the Northeast Baptist Church, a man from Citizens Against Pornography, a woman from the American Family Association. All the same fallacies - the ordinance would supposedly allow pedophilia, force employers to recognize same-sex marriages, allow male transexuals to (Gasp!) use women's bathrooms, expose the city to frivolous lawsuits, grant gay people "special priveleges" and generally lead to a total dissolution of values. Mr. Kennedy even went so far as to equate gay rights with terrorism saying that passing of this ordinance would be as bad a blow to "our way of life" as the events of 9/11...!!!

Some of the arguments against the ordinance were themselves so appalling that they actually spoke more FOR the ordinance. So said a supportive licensed realtor who said that he didn't want his kids to grow up in a place where such discrimination and prejudice could exist. Other speakers including Mike Mahler addressed the fact that increased tolerance is positively correlated with increased business. A representative of the Erie Indian Moundbuilders Tribal Nation challenged "Either we're all free or none of us are free." And a disarming eight year old Emma Nathanson evoked cheers from the audience when she told the Council to pass the ordinance because "everybody should be treated the same."

Council members seem to have listened. Joy Greco pointed out that the council's job was not to sort out what was moral or immoral but a legislative issue to do what was good for Erie County. Joe Giles commented on the sheer diversity of input received on the matter and was thankful for the participation of the public. Even the dissenting David Mitchell showed that he was not unmoved - speaking positively about the great degree of involvement of the public and the great amount of deliberation and work put into the ordinance by the Advisory Committee, the Human Relations Commission, the County Solicitors, members of the Schenker Administration, and the County Council members themselves.

Mitchell also made a strong public advisement to County Exec Schenker to please sign the ordinance.

You can e-mail Rick Schenker and let him know that you think he should sign into law the Erie County Human Relations Ordinance as passed by County Council.

While you're at it contact the members of Council and thank them for making the right decision.

There are a ton of other people to thank, too, who worked during this long year past to make equal rights for people of all orientations in Erie County a reality!


Thank you all.

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