CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. (WHTM) — Chambersburg Borough council voted 7-3 Monday night to repeal an anti-discrimination ordinance protecting members of the LGBTQ community.
According to the Pennsylvania Youth Congress, at least 71 of Pennsylvania’s 2,562 municipalities have passed LGBTQ-inclusive local nondiscrimination ordinances as of January 2022. Chambersburg becomes the first to repeal one.
At Monday night’s meeting, more than 160 people joined via Zoom and at least 60 more in-person, with overflow seating in the hallway. Out of about 60 people who spoke, only five or six were in favor of repealing the ordinance.
The ordinance was passed by a strong Democratic majority in the fall of 2021 but the council now has a Republican majority and council President Allen Coffman said repealing the anti-discrimination ordinance is what voters elected them to do.
“It’s not that they’re being discriminatory against people. I know that may sound crazy to something that’s not if we don’t think this is a good thing to have. It doesn’t accomplish anything for our citizens,” Coffman said.
There are no statewide protections for people based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
Previous council president and current council member Alice Elia says the ordinance was important to members of the LGBTQ community. She said when people go to the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission with a complaint, it would give them a local law to point to that indicates that discrimination is not allowed in that community.
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“It made an important statement about who we are as a community. It saddens me to think that we would be dialing back on that and telling people in our community that they are not worthy of equal protections,” Elia said.
However, Coffman viewed the ordinance as nothing more than a piece of paper without legal standing and unnecessary bureaucracy.
“I don’t see that there is any protection in it. Their protection in my mind is with the Constitution, United States and also the constitution in the state of Pennsylvania,” Coffman said. “It doesn’t lie in this ordinance that was passed. There’s no penalties in this. There’s nothing that anybody can be forced to do when this ordinance was set up, the most that they can expect you to do is sit down with a mediator or counselor or somebody to discuss the differences that you have and if they’re serious enough for that, I don’t see why they aren’t going to end up with a lawyer and going to the Human Relations Commission right from the get-go.”
The Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission does interpret the prohibition of discrimination on the basis of sex to include LGBTQ individuals but it isn’t explicitly stated in the law.
Julie Zaebst with the ACLU says a local ordinance is another layer of protection.
“Should the legal interpretation change around discrimination on the basis of sex it guarantees that folks in municipalities with these explicit protections for LGB Q and transgender people continue to be covered,” Zaebst said.
Many people, including several members of the LGBTQ community, spoke passionately during the public comment period lasting several hours.
“Why do you hate my community? Because that’s what this is about. It’s about hatred. And before we came out of the closet, we lived with you. We heard how you talked about us. I grew up with aunts, uncles and cousins who said people like me should be shot, killed, put out on a raft somewhere, that AIDS was God’s answer to us,” said Shannon Brown.
“You want to divide this community. You want to have incidents where there’s going to be violence and that’s uncalled for, ” said Kim Ward.
Dawn Abraham, co-sponsor of the gay-straight alliance at the local high school said membership in the club has quadrupled, but bullying is getting worse.
“Our kids are reporting the fact that they’re getting bullied, pushed downstairs, barked at and called multiple expletives on a daily basis,” Abraham said. “By pulling your support for this NDO you’re showing our community that you don’t support the school children in this community.”
Many members of the council said they don’t hate the LGBT community and they believe in equal rights for everybody, but that the ordinance needed to be repealed.
“We were all brought into this world with the same inalienable rights. So I think by creating special protections for people, we open the door for other special protections for other people,” said councilman Bill Everly. “I’ve been doing some work with the LGB, looking at this and out in California, they’re also trying to attach other quote alphabet letters to the LGBTQ people. So if we pass this ordinance, I mean, we don’t repeal this ordinance, who’s to say another special interest group will come forward.”
Everly went on to say how he was picked on for being overweight.
“I’ll talk about something that I’ve been discriminated in my life. I was a man that was 100 pounds heavier than I currently am and I was discriminated in my life,” Everly said. “However I have not taken that platform to carve out a special exemption for me and others such as myself. And I think it’s important that we as a community come together and not divide us even more and I think this divides us a little bit.”
Other members of the council did speak up in favor of keeping the protections for the LGBTQ community.
“Once a person loses a reputation, it’s very, very difficult to get that reputation back and I believe the same is true of a community. We will be the first and only town to have a nondiscrimination ordinance rescinded,” said councilwoman Kathy Leedy.
“People like myself will get up every morning with compassion and empathy for everyone in this community because everyone matters, even you council members. And we would like to do that with you but we will do that in spite of you if we have to,” said Barbara Randall.
Coffman offered this closing statement:
“All, notice I said all, that includes everybody, I don’t care where they are on the spectrum of LGBTQ XYZ 1,2, 5, whatever it is. All, all, all should and must be treated equally under the law of this country.”
In lieu of the ordinance, Mayor Kenneth Hock signed a proclamation condemning all forms of bigotry, discrimination and oppression against all individuals.