The Supreme Court of the United States heard arguments Tuesday on the remarkable question, here in 2019, of whether employers may freely discriminate against an entire class of Americans because of who they are.
Even more remarkable is that Pennsylvania law does not provide protection from the discrimination at issue, which should be resolved.
The U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964 bars discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations based on race and sex. But it does not specifically exclude discrimination based on sexual orientation or identity. In recent years, several federal courts have ruled the law bars such bias under the broad umbrella of sex-based discrimination.
It was not clear how the court would vote after Tuesday’s argument. But if the court actually gives its blessing to blatant discrimination against an entire class of Americans, Congress easily can correct it by amending the Civil Rights Act to cover sexual orientation and sexual identity. It has included such provisions in a series of laws on more specific subjects that have passed since the 1964 law, including the relatively recent Violence Against Women Act and the Hate Crimes Act.
Meanwhile, Pennsylvania law does not specifically outlaw discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations based on sexual orientation or identity. At least 40 cities in the state, including Scranton, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Allentown and Reading have ordinances outlawing such discrimination.
Bills to correct that have come close to passing several times over the last decade, with broad bipartisan support, including from Republican Gov. Tom Corbett and Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf. And in August 2018, the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission announced it would accept discrimination complaints from LGBTQ residents under state law barring sex-based discrimination.
But as the federal case demonstrates, the law matters. Lawmakers finally should pass the specific provisions barring discrimination based on sexual orientation or identity.
Primaries should be open to all
In a Penn Township, Westmoreland County, precinct, a woman stood confused as she looked at her ballot.
“These are all the candidates? The one I was voting for isn’t here.”
The poll worker explained to her that all the candidates she was allowed to vote for were on the ballot. The candidate she wanted wasn’t in her party, so she couldn’t make that choice.
That is the Pennsylvania primary system in a nutshell.
The state has a closed primary. If you want to pick which Democrats are going to move on to the general election in November, you can’t be registered as a Republican in the spring.
If you want to cross party lines and say, “I don’t like any of these options,” you have to plan ahead in the Keystone State. Neighbors like New York and New Jersey are similar.
But not all states do it that way. In Ohio, voters don’t register as party members, but request the ballot of their party at the poll or remain unaffiliated and just vote on referendums or amendments. In West Virginia primaries, unaffiliated voters can pick either ballot, but those who registered as a party member are limited to that party.
Nationwide, the options range from Election Day registration with wide-open options to rigid rules like Pennsylvania and a lot in between.
The woman voting in Penn Township couldn’t understand the restriction. She’s not alone. Plenty of people have advocated for updating the process to at least allow voters who aren’t R’s or D’s to have a say.
In June, the state Senate voted 42 to 8 for a change that would let the hundreds of thousands of unaffiliated voters choose a Republican or Democratic ballot on a primary election day.
The state House should follow suit and give Pennsylvania voters — regardless of which team they support — the opportunity to raise their voices in every election, not just in November.