NEWTOWN TOWNSHIP >> The board of supervisors approved extending anti-discrimination protections to the LGBTQ community for public accommodations, housing and employment within the township.
At the Nov. 28 meeting, the board in a 4-0 vote passed the measure which would also establish a township-run human relations commission to handle all discrimination complaints, not only LBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Questioning) issues.
Voting for the ordinance were Chairman Phil Calabro, along with fellow Supervisors Dennis Fisher, Linda Bobrin and John Mack. Supervisor Kyle Davis did not attend the meeting.
“This puts us at the forefront of other townships and local governments in the area,” noted Calabro.
The township took the cue for the new law from Yardley Borough which approved a similar measure in March to extend legal protections based on sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression.
Current state and federal anti-bias laws do not specifically cover LGBTQ rights.
Because of those statutory exclusions, interpretations are left up to elected officials and the courts.
“Pennsylvania is the only state in the Northeast U.S. that does not have a law preventing discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation,” exclaimed Supervisor Mack.
The township’s new ordinance will take effect when the supervisors make appointments to the new three-to-five member human relations commission.
The panel will operate at no cost to the township, and parties can appear before it with or without an attorney.
In addition, the ordinance states that the losing side is not responsible for the other’s legal costs.
Newtown has now become the sixth municipality in Bucks County to enact such a law, following the lead of Yardley, Doylestown, New Hope, Newtown and Bristol Boroughs.
Both Newtown Township and Yardley’s ordinance was modeled after the Doylestown law which enhanced LGBTQ rights.
Because federal and state law does not explicitly guarantee them any protections, LGBTQ individuals currently must now take their bias complaints to the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission (PHRC).
However, it’s still unclear whether the state commission has any standing to legally intervene in such cases.
Over the past several years, legislation to extend protections to the LGBTQ community has repeatedly stalled in committee, even though state lawmakers seem to support it.
Under the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act, municipalities are allowed to establish their own human relations commissions to parallel the state commission and independently handle any discrimination complaints, not only those involving the LGBTQ rights.
Under Newtown’s new ordinance, a human relations commission will be set up which parallels the PHRC, so that anyone who feels discriminated against within the township can attempt to resolve the issues on the municipal level.
The panel will have subpoena power, as well as the legal authority to have the Bucks County Common Pleas Court enforce its decisions, as does the state human relations commission.
These commissions actually represent the complainants and bring the formal actions against those accused of discrimination.
Once a bias complaint is filed in Newtown Township, it would then be vetted by the township manager’s office to ensure it is not frivolous before being sent to the commission for a scheduled hearing.
The panel will attempt to have both parties preferably settle the complaint before taking it to a full-scale evidentiary hearing.
Anyone who lives or works in the township would be entitled to file a complaint with the local commission.
Like Yardley, Newtown’s ordinance also includes a ban on ‘conversion therapy’ for those under 18-years-old, whereas Pennsylvania’s human relations statute does not have such a prohibition.
Recently Doylestown Borough also amended its measure to include the same language. Conversion therapy is the pseudo-scientific practice of attempting to change a person’s sexual preference through psychological or spiritual interventions.
The practice is already banned in 14 states, including: New Jersey, California, Vermont and Rhode Island.
In September, Yardley Borough Vice President David Bria, who sponsored his borough’s measure, had given a presentation to the supervisors on the Yardley ordinance seeking the township’s support for a similar ordinance.
Bria, who was at the supervisors meeting for the vote, thanked the board for supporting the measure and spoke about the legacy of gay activist Harvey Milk, a San Francisco supervisor who was assassinated on Nov. 27, 1978.
“His call to action to the LGBT community was that we needed to come out to our brothers, our sisters, our colleagues, our friends, our neighbors,” Bria said, “If people knew us it would start to break the stigma, the hate and the discrimination that our community experiences.”
According to Bria, even though the LGBTQ community has come a long way since Milk’s death, there are still only 604 openly LGBTQ-elected officials in the U.S. Today.
Police Chief Search
In other news, the supervisors are getting closer to publicly naming a new police chief to replace Rick Pasqualini who retired in July.
The board agreed to spend $1,600 for Inter County Investigations, Inc. to conduct a criminal background check on whomever the board choses as the new chief.
The Montgomery County-based firm specializes in private investigations in the Philadelphia area.
In addition, the supervisors approved a $1,000 a month stipend for acting-police chief Jason Harris who has been filling in since Pasqualini’s retirement.
Harris is currently a lieutenant in the department.
The township police department has 31 officers, commanders and civilian staff members.
Year of the Bird
And the supervisors presented a proclamation to the township’s Environmental Advisory Council recognizing 2018 as the ‘Year of the Bird.’
The declaration was at the urging of the Pennsylvania Audubon Society which is trying to get county and local governments in the state to help protect migratory birds and keep U.S. treaties from being weakened.
For the past several years, the state Audubon Society has designated Newtown Township as an official ‘Bird Town.’