Nondiscrimination bills deserve support

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ABoston Globe columnist recently pointed out that part of the pleasure of watching the critically revered television drama “Mad Men,” which is set around a 1960s Madison Avenue ad agency, is marveling at the obtuse, reckless and retrograde behaviors that were once considered routine.


Puffing away on cigarettes heedlessly in business meetings. Sipping alcohol behind the wheel. Leaving your litter behind in a park with a shrug.


The series’ third season found the agency’s art director, Salvatore Romano, getting the boot. Not because he wasn’t a loyal employee or gifted at his work.


Romano got fired because he was gay.


A half-century after the events staged in “Mad Men,” we look back on them and think, goodness gracious, what knuckle-draggers. But the reality is that, in 2013, being gay – or straight, or asexual – could still be grounds for dismissal in Pennsylvania, no matter how well an employee is doing on the job.


This might come as a surprise to many. But, with the exception of federal workers, on-the-job discrimination based on sexual preference is not covered under federal law, as it is for religion, race, national origin, age, disability or gender. That question has been left to the states and, so far, 21 states and the District of Columbia have enacted laws barring discrimination based on sexual orientation. Pennsylvania is still not one of them. As the pace of mainstream acceptance of gays and lesbians has quickened in recent years, this is a serious and perplexing oversight.


However, the commonwealth could become the 22nd state to outlaw occupational discrimination based on sexual orientation if twin bills that have been introduced in the state House and Senate become law. Introduced on Tuesday, the measures would prohibit discrimination based on sexual preference and gender identity or its expression not only in employment but also in credit, public accommodations and housing. Both bills have a horde of co-sponsors, with 77 representatives and 25 senators from across the partisan spectrum signing up. It also has widespread public support. A poll in February by Susquehanna Polling and Research, a Republican-leaning organization, found that 72 percent of respondents supported measures to end discrimination based on sexual preference, and 21 percent were opposed. When broken down by region, Southwestern Pennsylvania was the least enthusiastic, but still supported it by 66 percent.


With widespread public approval and a throng of legislators in support, the bills should, in theory, be on a glide path to our statute books. However, in the House, the bill will have to get past Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, the far-right troglodyte from Butler County who chairs the State Government Committee. Never losing out on an opportunity to try to rev up the time machine for a journey back to less enlightened days, Metcalfe introduced a measure to amend the state Constitution to limit marriage to one man and one woman. Proponents of fairness and equality should be heartened that it attracted only 27 co-sponsors and is likely to go nowhere.


Bills to ban discrimination based on sexual preference have been introduced for years in Harrisburg, and have promptly sputtered out and stalled. There’s certainly no guarantee that fate will be any kinder this time around. But, as Martin Luther King Jr. once noted, the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. It seems an inevitability that sooner, rather than later, discrimination based on sexual preference will be outlawed in Pennsylvania, and that’s something that all of the commonwealth’s citizens should embrace.


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