HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) — It’s been the subject of controversy in dozens of municipalities whose councils have passed ordinances — and in one (Chambersburg) whose council passed an ordinance, only to overturn it months later.

But a new statewide rule — if approved — could quickly make the differences between municipal rules less important on matters of discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identification.

“The message we’re sending to the LGBTQ community is that Pennsylvania is a state that welcomes everybody and will protect everyone from discrimination,” said Joel Bolstein, chairperson of Pennsylvania’s Human Relations Commission (HRC), which proposed the new rule.

The proposal — which faces a 30-day public comment period and then review by Pennsylvania’s Independent Regulatory Review Commission (IRRC) — was first reported early Monday by biznewsPA.

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Already, based on federal law, companies with 15 or more employees couldn’t discriminate based on sex — which in 2020 the U.S. Supreme Court found applies not only to sex at birth, but also to sexual orientation and gender identity. About 70 Pennsylvania municipalities, in which (according to Bolstein) about half the state’s residents live, have ordinances providing stricter protections than state law.

The new regulation would lower the threshold for protection to employers of just four or more employees.

“Now, for 30 days, we hope that people will send us public comments, pro or con,” Bolstein said. For those again, “We’d like to understand what people’s concerns are.”

You can email comments to HRREGSCOMMENT@pa.gov.

Because it’s a regulation — not legislation — the proposal wouldn’t require approval by Pennsylvania’s GOP-controlled legislature. Bolstein said HRC members of both parties voted unanimously in favor of the regulation. Bolstein was originally appointed to the commission in 1999 by Governor Tom Ridge, a Republican; current Governor Tom Wolf, a Democrat, elevated him to chairperson.

Who isn’t protected today but would be if the IRRC approves the new rule?

“Let’s imagine we’re talking about a floral shop” with — say — five employees, said David Moore, president of the Meadville-based Pennsylvania Equality Project. “One of the employees happens to be somebody who’s a gay man. That gay man could not face discrimination, would not face losing his job or having his hours cut” based on his sexual orientation.

The rules apply to housing and education, as well as employment.

Bolstein said beyond the 30-day comment period, he can’t predict how soon the proposal might go into effect.

“It could happen very quickly,” he said. “Or depending upon the volume of comments we get, it could take a little longer.”