Despite legal and cultural progress in the realm of civil rights, federal laws only specifically prohibit discrimination when it comes to race, religion, gender and disabilities. As a result, states and municipalities have stepped in to outline additional protection for other marginalized groups, like gays and lesbians or single parents.
Frustrated by stalemates in the Pennsylvania legislature, gay rights advocacy groups and local legislators have pressed townships to pass their own policies. Philadelphia has had one since the 1980s; suburban towns such as Lower Merion and Haverford, added theirs over the past few years. Last week, Abington became the 28th township in the state to adopt such a policy, following Cheltenham, which approved its ordinance in February.
"Cheltenham Township will protect its LGBT residents even while our state continues to condone second-class citizenship," David Flaks, a steering team member of Cheltenham Area Residents for Equality, said in a news release.
In Abington, Jewish commissioners Lori Schreiber, who is openly lesbian, and Steven Kline led the call for an inclusive anti-discrimination policy. Schreiber first brought up the idea in fall 2010. In January 2011, she introduced a law that included the creation of a local volunteer human relations commission to handle discrimination cases through a fact-finding and adjudication process.
Despite support at a public hearing, the measure was swiftly voted down. Opponents said they worried about getting tangled in costly legal issues by taking on matters that would otherwise go to a state commission.
Under the compromise version that passed, the Abington commission would conduct mediation if a discrimination complaint comes up, but any legal action would get referred to the courts of common pleas.
Schreiber said she would have preferred her original, stronger law but at least having the policy "sends a message out to the community that Abington won't tolerate discrimination," and those who disregard that could be held accountable in court.
Ted Martin, executive director of the LGBT advocacy group Equality Pennsylvania, said the two recent victories will pave the way for more towns to pass similar laws.
"We are getting more calls on this subject than you can imagine," he said in a statement.