Local officials are expanding the reach of State College borough’s protections for LGBTQ people by encouraging other local municipalities to duplicate its anti-discrimination ordinance and creating a Regional Human Relations Commission.
While state and federal laws prohibit discrimination against people because of race, color, religion, age, sex, national origin, and disability — protections against discrimination due to gender identity and sexual orientation in Pennsylvania exist only at the local level.
That results in anti-discrimination policies changing from one town to the next, or between someone’s place of residence and where they work. For more than 15 years, State College was the only municipality in Centre County that prohibited discrimination in housing, employment, and public accommodations based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
But the borough is only about 4.6 square miles.
“That ordinance goes away if you take a 15-minute walk from here,” State College Borough Council President Jesse Barlow said during a January council meeting.
The council voted last month to establish the Regional Human Relations Commission — which will “investigate complaints of discrimination and … facilitate mediation and conciliation of any founded violations” and is seeking other municipalities to join the effort. The commission will “allow for regional jurisdiction and membership from the adopting municipalities.”
Ferguson Township’s supervisors voted unanimously Feb. 7 to adopt the anti-discrimination ordinance and establish the regional commission. In March, Patton Township will consider the same measures.
“This regional approach is unique in Pennsylvania,” Barlow told Spotlight PA. “A number of local elected officials have been pushing for this approach for several years.”
More than 70 of the commonwealth’s 2,500-plus municipalities have anti-discrimination ordinances, which cover about 35% of the state’s LGBTQ population, according to advocacy group Pennsylvania Youth Congress.
The borough has “what is possibly the strongest” anti-discrimination ordinance in Pennsylvania, Barlow told Spotlight PA. But people in nearby communities need protections too.
“If we can get enough Centre County municipalities to sign on, we would like to push the County to enact it,” he wrote in an email.
The establishment of the regional commission bypasses the Centre Region Council of Governments, which is governed by the elected officials from six municipalities — College, Ferguson, Halfmoon, Harris, and Patton townships, and State College borough — that work together to provide shared services to their residents.
Barlow, who also chairs COG’s General Forum, wrote “it was easier to talk to the individual municipalities” and some of the COG municipalities “have expressed little interest.” However, he stressed that the decision is not a criticism of the COG.
—Sarah Rafacz, State College Editor