1. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 has protected United States residents from discrimination in the areas of employment, housing, and public accommodations (shops, restaurants, etc.) on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. The Fair Housing Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act and other laws also provide federal protections against discrimination. The Supreme Court has recently affirmed that the category of ‘sex’ includes sexual orientation and gender identity in the area of employment.
2. The Pennsylvania Human Relations Act (PHRA) protects all Pennsylvanians from discrimination in these areas and more, but does not explicitly include all people who face the possibility of discrimination. This law is enforced by the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission (PHRC). For more information, see http://phrc.pa.gov.
3. The PHRA allows for local ordinances to create local human relations commissions which are in a better position to offer public education to prevent discrimination and to address any local cases which might arise. Some local commissions hold hearings and some only offer the initial mediation phase. There are 41 local human relations commissions in Pennsylvania. Most only handle a small number of cases annually and smaller municipalities rarely have cases at all. The primary goal is to educate for the prevention of discrimination and to provide an incentive to treat all residents equally.
4. The proposed Bloomsburg Anti-Discrimination Ordinance adds sexual orientation, gender identity, marital status, familial status, veteran status, and genetic information to the list of protections from discrimination already covered by the PHRA. It also covers discrimination based on ‘perceived identity.’ An example of this would be if two women seek to rent an apartment and a landlord refuses to rent to them because they are perceived to be a lesbian couple. If it is actually the case that they are just friends, the discrimination is still illegal because it happened based on the perception that they were lesbians.
5. Exceptions to the ordinance are made for employers with fewer than 4 employees and for religious denominations and charitable organizations affiliated with religious denominations as well as bona fide private or fraternal organizations. If a religious or private organization receives government funding, the exceptions are limited. The ordinance is in compliance with the Pennsylvania Religious Freedom Protection Act.
6. The proposed ordinance was developed in consultation with a judge from the PHRC, and the Town has had it reviewed by solicitors. It is very similar to the ordinance recently passed in rural Huntington Township, and consistent with the 41 other local ordinances across the Commonwealth.
7. The ordinance would create the Bloomsburg Human Relations Commission (BHRC) which would consist of five town residents who are trained and supported by the PHRC. The BHRC would only oversee the mediation phase, and would assist complainants with filing at the state and federal levels. Much of their work would focus on public education and prevention, including activities such as encouraging businesses to pass respectful workplace policies.
8. In the event of a case of alleged discrimination of any kind, the BHRC would receive the complaint and, if not deemed frivolous, reach out to both parties with a proposal for mediation. Mediation would typically take place with the two parties, potentially their solicitors, two BHRC members, and a professional mediator. The parties are responsible for any costs, which would be minimal at this phase. Mediation could result in an apology and handshake or a mutually agreed-upon financial settlement. This mediation process would usually take about 3 months.
9. If mediation is declined or is not successful, the case would be referred to the PHRC for a formal investigation and, if warranted, a hearing. The ruling may be appealed to the Court of Common Pleas. This process typically lasts 1-2 years.
10. If the mediation is not successful and the discrimination is not covered by the PHRA, the case would proceed directly to the Court of Common Pleas without going through the PHRC. See #4 above for a list of these categories.
11. Town Council will start recruiting applicants to serve on the BHRC and would approve their operating rules, such as the number of meetings they have per year and the procedures used to carry out the ordinance. BHRC members would be trained by the PHRC and it is anticipated that they would hold four regular meetings per year. Town residents interested in serving on the BHRC should send a letter of interest to the Bloomsburg Town Council to the attention of Lisa Dooley, Town Manager, at [email protected] or mail to: Town of Bloomsburg, 301 E. 2nd St., Bloomsburg, PA 17815. Letters should be received by December 4th. Commissioners will be appointed and begin their service in January 2021.
12. Town Council voted to advertise the ordinance for public comment on October 12, 2020. The ordinance will be considered for adoption at the next meeting held on October 26 at 7:00 p.m. Instructions on joining the meeting via Zoom can be found at www.bloomsburgpa.org. Send any comments by October 23 to: [email protected] or mail to: Town of Bloomsburg, 301 E. 2nd St., Bloomsburg, PA 17815. Please include your name and address and identify whether you are a town resident. Anyone who lives, works, or shops in Bloomsburg is encouraged to send a comment.
13. The full draft of the proposed ordinance is found in the link below.