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State College wants nearby municipalities to adopt LGBTQ protections

Two Centre County municipalities have protections for LGBTQ people against discrimination in housing and employment. Officials in State College and Ferguson Township hope more municipalities sign on.
Georgianna Sutherland
For Spotlight PA
Two Centre County municipalities have protections for LGBTQ people against discrimination in housing and employment. Officials in State College and Ferguson Township hope more municipalities sign on.

This story first appeared in Talk of the Town, a weekly newsletter by Spotlight PA’s State College regional bureau featuring the most important news and happenings in north-central Pennsylvania. Sign up for free here.

STATE COLLEGE — Local officials are expanding the reach of the borough’s protections for LGBTQ people by encouraging other local municipalities to duplicate its anti-discrimination ordinance and creating a Regional Human Relations Commission.

State law prohibits discrimination against people because of race, color, religion, age, sex, national origin, and disability.

For more than a decade, LGBTQ advocates and Democrats have sought to add gender identity and sexual orientation to that list. That effort has so far been unsuccessful in the legislature, though Pennsylvania did in recent years adopt an expanded definition of sex that allows LGBTQ people to file discrimination complaints with a statewide commission.

In the absence of a statewide law, dozens of municipalities have adopted their own anti-discrimination policies. For more than 15 years, State College was the only municipality in Centre County that prohibited discrimination in housing, employment, and public accommodations based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

But the borough is only about 4.6 square miles.

“That ordinance goes away if you take a 15-minute walk from here,” State College Borough Council President Jesse Barlow said during a January council meeting.

The council voted last month to establish the Regional Human Relations Commission, which will “investigate complaints of discrimination and … facilitate mediation and conciliation of any founded violations” and is seeking other municipalities to join the effort. The commission will “allow for regional jurisdiction and membership from the adopting municipalities.”

Ferguson Township’s supervisors voted unanimously Feb. 7 to adopt the anti-discrimination ordinance and establish the regional commission. In March, Patton Township will consider the same measures.

“This regional approach is unique in Pennsylvania,” Barlow told Spotlight PA. “A number of local elected officials have been pushing for this approach for several years.”

More than 70 of the commonwealth’s 2,500-plus municipalities have anti-discrimination ordinances, which cover about 35% of the state’s LGBTQ population, according to advocacy group Pennsylvania Youth Congress.

The borough has “what is possibly the strongest” anti-discrimination ordinance in Pennsylvania, Barlow told Spotlight PA. But people in nearby communities need protections too.

“If we can get enough Centre County municipalities to sign on, we would like to push the County to enact it,” he wrote in an email.

The establishment of the regional commission bypasses the Centre Region Council of Governments, which is governed by the elected officials from six municipalities — College, Ferguson, Halfmoon, Harris, and Patton townships, and State College borough — that work together to provide shared services to their residents.

Barlow, who also chairs COG’s General Forum, wrote “it was easier to talk to the individual municipalities” and some of the COG municipalities “have expressed little interest.” However, he stressed that the decision is not a criticism of the COG.

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Sarah Rafacz is the editor of Spotlight PA’s State College bureau.