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Middletown ordinance on discrimination finally nearing council vote

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Over two years in the making, a proposed ordinance aimed at protecting Middletown residents from being discriminated against because of their sexual orientation and gender identity has been approved for advertisement — narrowly — by borough council.

Council Aug. 7 voted 4-3 — with Mayor James H. Curry III breaking a 3-3 tie — to tentatively adopt for public advertisement the ordinance, which was first proposed by Curry and the borough’s Human Relations Commission in May 2017.

Council must still take a second vote before the ordinance receives final approval and can go into effect.

The borough since 1979 has had an ordinance on the books that prohibits discrimination against Middletown residents based upon their age, race, color, religion, creed, ancestry, national origin, marital status, and/or disability.

The new ordinance would add to this list by prohibiting discrimination based upon one’s familial status, veteran status, genetic information, seen and unseen disabilities, sexual orientation, and gender identity or gender expression.

The ordinance also seeks to protect from discrimination those who use guide or support animals, or someone who is a handler or trainer of such support or guide animals.

The 1979 ordinance only prohibits discrimination in the area of housing.

The new ordinance would expand on this as well, prohibiting discrimination in the areas of employment, public accommodations, commercial property, or “housing accommodations,” consistent with provisions of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act, according to the proposal being advertised.

Councilors voting for the ordinance were Council Vice President Mike Woodworth — who also chairs the HRC and has been a strong advocate for the new ordinance, Council President Angela Lloyd, who is also a member of the commission, and Councilor Ellen Willenbecher.

Woodworth in a statement emailed to the Press & Journal on Aug. 12 said that “I, and my fellow (Human Relations) commissioners, Angela Lloyd and Rachelle Reid, felt that the ordinance defining Middletown’s Human Relations Commission was severely outdated when we were appointed to the commission in 2016. We saw an opportunity to revise the language in it to clarify what actions and behaviors can be classified as discrimination that the commission would work to resolve, who would be protected from discrimination, and how the commission can help residents with discrimination.

“Over the course of the past two years, the commission has worked to draft this new ordinance, with input and direction from Middletown’s mayor, borough council, and solicitor, the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, and other commissions throughout Pennsylvania, so that all members of the Middletown community have the legal protection they need to stand up to unjust treatment.

“I am excited to pass this ordinance and expand the same civil liberties that I am privilege to, to all of my Middletown neighbors. I hope that my fellow councilors share this same desire and that they join me in voting ‘yes,’” Woodworth concluded in his statement.

The councilors who voted against advertising the proposed ordinance were Dawn Knull, Jenny Miller, and Robert Reid. Councilor Ian Reddinger was absent from the meeting, resulting in the 3-3 tie.

Reid, the borough’s former longtime mayor and the first African-American ever elected mayor of any municipality in Pennsylvania, has consistently opposed the ordinance, saying that the U.S. Constitution already protects all U.S. citizens from discrimination.

Miller afterward told the Press & Journal she agrees with Reid that the proposed ordinance is “a duplication of services” in light of the existing protections in the U.S. Constitution.

Miller also expressed concern over the ordinance increasing borough legal costs, a concern that has been expressed by other councilors during occasions when the proposal has been discussed over the past two years.

“With responsibility comes cost. I am trying to look at being conservative with how much spending,” Miller said. “I’m not convinced it is a good move.”

However, the proposed ordinance states that, regarding attorneys’ fees, those involved in a complaint of discrimination — including the person making the complaint and the one accused of discriminating — “shall be liable for their individual attorneys’ fees incurred in the execution of any procedure identified by this ordinance.”

Elsewhere, the proposal notes that commission spending is to be limited to the amount of money council budgets to provide to the commission each year.

Knull told the Press & Journal she agrees with what the proposed ordinance stands for. However, she worries that the proposal as now worded could lead the borough “into more litigation.”

The ordinance spells out the procedure by which anyone aggrieved by alleged discrimination can file a complaint with the commission.

The commission upon receiving the complaint would notify the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission of the complaint.

The commission would also instruct that the person filing the complaint also file with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and/or the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development if, for example, the complaint pertains to housing.

The commission would seek to resolve the complaint by using an independent mediator or mediation service that would be agreed upon by the person making the complaint, and the alleged offender.

If mediation does not succeed, the commission would advise the parties of their right to take the dispute to Dauphin County Court. The commission would also notify the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission that mediation had not resolved the complaint.

The ordinance does not indicate that the commission would seek to make itself or the borough a party to a dispute going to county court.

However, the ordinance does say that the chairperson or acting chairperson of the commission “shall have power to administer oaths and issue subpoenas to compel the attendance of witnesses and the production of relevant documents and papers, including witnesses and documents requested by the commission.”

The ordinance would exempt from requirements of the proposal any religious or denominational institution, or any charitable or educational organization which is operated, supervised or controlled by or in connection with any religious organization, or any “bona fide” private or fraternal organization.

The ordinance goes on to say that these requirements would not apply to “a religious corporation or association” that refuses to hire or employ an individual on the basis of religion or sex “where that is a qualification due to the group’s beliefs and practices.”

Council appeared ready to move forward with such an ordinance back in June 2017, until opposition to the proposal came from the Rev. Paul Maulfair, pastor of Garden Chapel in Lower Swatara Township.

Maulfair, who was also a landlord owning several apartments in Middletown, said he would not reject an applicant for one of his apartments based upon their sexual orientation or gender identity.

But if he did reject an applicant for another reason that is legitimate, Maulfair said at the time he feared that the ordinance could be used against him by an applicant who could contend that Maulfair did chose not to rent the apartment to the person based upon their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Maulfair also said he believed the existing Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission provides adequate remedy for someone who believes they have been discriminated against to file a complaint.

A countering view was offered by Shannon Hopple-Rico, a Middletown resident who in an Oct. 3, 2018, letter to the editor published in the Press & Journal urged the commission move forward with protecting the rights of LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual transgender, queer/questioning) communities.

Hopple-Rico said that as a lesbian couple with children living in Middletown, her family has been subject to “discrimination and ridicule.”

She said that she and her family could “easily be evicted just for being a homosexual couple,” if not for that the family owns two homes in Middletown.

“As it stands right now, we have been and will continue to be denied basic access to businesses and services within our own community — the community that we have supported and lived in for many years,” Hopple-Rico wrote. “Enacting a protection of rights ordinance in the town will not harm anyone. Enacting a protection of rights ordinance in the town can only help those of us who have already faced the very real and very painful actions of others and allow us the same protection that heterosexual couples are afforded in Middletown.”

Hopple-Rico, a veteran, followed up her letter by appearing before council in November 2018, to urge action on the proposal.