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Council Adopts Civil Rights Law

Unanimous vote creates Human Relations Commission, grants protections to gays, lesbians.

Bethlehem no longer holds the distinction of being the largest city in Pennsylvania without a Human Relations civil rights ordinance.

City Council on Tuesday voted unanimously to adopt a new law that prohibits discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodation on the basis of race, color, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, ancestry, national origin, handicap, the need to use a guide or support animal.

The celebration in the gallery was muted but audible. Dozens of bill supporters, many of whom are members or friends of the gay and lesbian community in the Lehigh Valley, were seated and awaiting council’s decision for nearly three hours. It almost sounded like a sigh of relief.

“We won because the citizens of Bethlehem strongly supported the ordinance,” said Adrian Shanker, vice president of the Pennsylvania Diversity Network, a Lehigh Valley-based support network for the gays, lesbians and transgender people. Shanker led a coalition of business, church leaders and individuals who voiced their support for the ordinance.

“It’s a great day in Bethlehem,” said Rob Hopkins, a lifelong Bethlehem resident who had spoken out at all four council meetings.

The next step, after Mayor John Callahan signs the bill, will be for council and the mayor to appoint a Human Relations Commission, which will be empowered to investigate allegations of discrimination and to seek conciliation.

After council deliberated and debated the issue for at least two months, in four committee and full council meetings that included 119 recorded comments from the public, it turned out that council members “agreed about far more of this than we disagreed,” observed Councilman J. William Reynolds.

“Sometimes, important decisions require comprehensive and sometimes even painful deliberation,” said Councilwoman Karen Dolan, who ended up being council’s most influential voice in determining the final outcome of the discussion.

“But I don’t think Bethlehem City Council regrets a moment of it because it was probably, for many of us, the closest we ever came to truly listening to a group of people that we have not heard from before. It’s because of their patience and persistence that we worked through our differences and passed an ordinance that protects everyone.”

The Pennsylvania Diversity Network postponed its annual awards ceremony, which had initially been scheduled for Tuesday night in Allentown, so that ordinance supporters could once again express that support before Bethlehem City Council. The ceremony will now be held on June 30.

Some of the finer points of the ordinance still needed to be worked out during Tuesday’s council meeting, which again was attended by an overflow crowd at Town Hall.

But by the end of the discussion and votes on bill amendments, proponents of the new law got everything they hoped for, including a commission with investigatory and enforcement powers and a more narrowly defined religious exemption than .

Dolan had voted against the first reading version of the bill because of her objections to the religious exemption clause council adopted during that meeting.

She complained that the language tilted heavily toward the Catholic Church and against those of other faiths. Other civil rights proponents also argued that the exemptions were too broad, essentially allowing anyone who claimed to be a “person of faith” to discriminate on that basis.

The revised language, authored by Dolan, holds that no religious organization shall be required under the law to do anything that violates its tenets of faith.

The amendment was supported by Dolan, Reynolds, Councilwoman Jean Belinski and Councilman Gordon Mowrer. Council President Robert Donchez and councilmen David DiGiacinto and Eric Evans voted against the amendment.

Evans also held fast to his amendments – passed on first reading – that essentially stripped a new human relations commission of its enforcement powers. He explained that he believes it would be wrong to grant the commission both judicial and enforcement powers. He said courts should and would be the final arbiter of discrimination complaints.

This time, however, council rejected his arguments, restoring what had been part of the intent of the : to provide the aggrieved and the accused with a locally based board that can investigate and adjudicate complaints, instead of forcing a hearing before the state Human Relations Commission in Harrisburg.

At the end, however, Evans said his concerns about the new commission were outweighed by what he thought were the overall positives of the bill.

Once again, there was overwhelming support for the ordinance in the gallery. Two-dozen supporters got up to speak before council. This time there were only two clear opponents and a handful of others for which their opinions of the bill were less than clear.

After the vote, Esther Lee, president of the Bethlehem branch of the NAACP, thanked council for its support of the new ordinance and commission.

“I think tomorrow I will send out a cable to all the negros who had to leave Bethlehem to find employment,” she said. “Some of them are still alive. They’ll be happy to hear it.”

With the ordinance adoption, Bethlehem becomes the 21st city in Pennsylvania to have a Human Relations Law, joining sister cities Allentown and Easton, which have had their own laws since 1964 and 2007, respectively. Allentown amended its law in 2002 to include gays, lesbians and transgender people on its list of protected classes.

John Carlson June 22, 2011 at 01:25 PM
This is the kind of inclusive, community building, welcoming America I believe in! This gives me hope that people can treat each other as human beings. I applaud the leaders and citizens of Bethlehem, PA!
Lee June 22, 2011 at 03:23 PM
Loved the comment by Esther Lee (second to last paragraph of article)! The township stood up against a vocal minority that is just a short evolutionary step from those that supported the Jim Crow laws up to the 1960's. It was truly a seminal moment - the vote essentially came down to a choice between stepping into the future or retreating back into the American dark ages. I only wonder why this took so long....

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