Phoenixville adopts anti-discrimination law to protect LGBT residents

Lily Groves, president of the Phoenixville Area High School Gender-Sexuality Alliance, said the new Phoenixville anti-discrimination ordinance approved Wednesday night will help Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender students by making them feel safe in their hometown.
Lily Groves, president of the Phoenixville Area High School Gender-Sexuality Alliance, said the new Phoenixville anti-discrimination ordinance approved Wednesday night will help Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender students by making them feel safe in their hometown. Eric Devlin — Digital First Media
Resident David Meadows opposed an approved Phoenixville anti-discrimination ordinance saying while he supported the concept, it’s an issue  that should be left to the state and federal government to handle.
Resident David Meadows opposed an approved Phoenixville anti-discrimination ordinance saying while he supported the concept, it’s an issue that should be left to the state and federal government to handle. Eric Devlin — Digital First Media

PHOENIXVILLE >> A new ordinance in the borough is being hailed as an important victory for the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender community in the fight against discrimination.

In a 6-1 decision Wednesday night, Phoenixville Borough Council adopted an anti-discrimination ordinance that ensures every resident is afforded equal access to employment, housing and public accommodations and is treated fairly regardless of, among a host of other things, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression.

Councilman Jon Ichter II cast the only ‘no’ vote. Council Vice President Dana Dugan was absent.

A standing-room-only crowd of over 100 people filled the council chamber and delivered thunderous applause upon the ordinance’s adoption. Many said the bill stood up for human rights and made the borough a safer place to live for LGBT residents.

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Critics however said that while they support the fight against discrimination, this issue would be better addressed at the state and federal levels. Some felt parts of the language in the ordinance were too vague or confusing and could benefit from another round of revision. They also were concerned with the potential financial costs associated with the ordinance.

The borough joins 38 other municipalities in Pennsylvania that have similar ordinances on the books, including locally in West Chester and Downingtown boroughs.

Phoenixville’s ordinance looks to address holes in state law. The Pennsylvania Human Relations Act protects against discrimination based on race, color, religious creed, ancestry, age, familial status, handicap or disability and national origin.

The new ordinance forms a five-person volunteer panel called the Phoenixville Human Relations Commission, appointed by borough council, whose members will serve overlapping three-year terms to handle discrimination claims through a mediation process. The goal will be to settle disputes before they have to go to court.

The panel members will not hold political office or be paid a salary other than for expenses incurred while they perform the duties of the position. Council will grant the commission members power to perform its duties, so long as they don’t exceed those exercised by the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission under the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act.

To read the approved ordinance, visit http://bit.ly/2kLr0Tb.

Council received 16 public comments from residents on both sides of the issue. While there was unanimous support to address the issue of discrimination, where residents differed was how to do it.

Resident Sophie Candler, a transgender woman, told council she supports the ordinance because she’s seen discrimination at work and on the streets.

“I hear it almost daily,” she said. “I’m asking that this antidiscrimination law be voted in to help people like myself, who in this Commonwealth, have no voice except to those who hear and help us.”

Lily Groves, president of the Phoenixville Area High School Gender-Sexuality Alliance, said the ordinance will help LGBT students.

“We will be able to live, work and feel safe in our hometown,” she said. “There are other communities where this is not the case and I don’t want that for my fellow LGBT+ students.”

Opponents said they too support fighting discrimination but the battle belongs at the state and federal level.

Resident Richard Breuer called discrimination “a scourge on our society” but the borough ordinance is not the vehicle best suited to fight it. The ordinance has two stages, mediation and expanded procedures, which can include investigations, civil prosecutions and adjudication.

“You need enough organization that you can achieve separation between the prosecutorial aspects and the adjudicatory aspects,” he said. “If you don’t achieve that, you’re denying the parties to that proceeding due process and the whole thing goes out the window.”

The borough doesn’t have enough resources to properly develop the expanded procedures turning the whole endeavor into “an illusion,” he said.

Resident David Meadows called the topic a sensitive issue and congratulated those who had the courage to speak.

“I feel it’s misplaced to bring this level of legislation down to the municipal level,” he said. “I think the federal government and state government are in a better position. They have more experience, commissions and boards already in place, they have many more legislators and lawyers involved than we can afford to.”

Municipal government is supposed to do things like enforce traffic laws and provide water and sewer not get into issues like anti-discrimination, he said.

Before his dissenting vote, Ichter said he supported the idea of an anti-discrimination ordinance but felt more time was needed to “go into the weeds” of the ordinance and revise its details.

Two borough business owners said they too supported the ordinance but were unsure about how it will impact small businesses. Things like what additional insurance coverage would be needed and how a business should prepare in the event it is accused of discrimination should be made more clear.

Noting his initial concern with the ordinance last month, council President James Kovaleski said he’s had a change of heart. Just like a borough zoning ordinance can be changed if corrections are needed, so too could a anti-discrimination ordinance. The goal is to “protect all citizens.”

Council members Catherine Doherty and Edwin Soto and were thrilled with the ordinance’s passage, having spent over a year drafting it.

“I’m delighted,” Doherty said. “I think Phoenixville deserves this.”

“It was a lot of hard work by a lot of people,” said Soto. “This is a huge win for the borough and a huge win for the state. It just continues to send a message that we really need to address this at the state level and address it at the federal level. That was pretty clear even from the people who oppose it.”

He later took to Twitter to express his enthusiasm.

“Proud to be a member of this community and a part of a team that helped make this happen,” he Tweeted. “Love wins. Hate loses.”