Meadville Tribune

February 28, 2014

We’re threading the needle between personal belief and discrimination

By John Finnerty
Meadville Tribune

— Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer has vetoed a bill that would allow business owners to deny service to homosexuals by citing a religious conviction. Similar legislation has been proposed in Ohio, Mississippi, Idaho, Kansas, Maine, South Dakota and Tennessee and Georgia, according to a catalog compiled by the Huffington Post.

Coming soon to that list: Pennsylvania.

Most legislative efforts around the country have bogged down, particularly in light of the backlash to the Arizona proposal. Major businesses expressed alarm at the Arizona bill. There were even rumblings that the NFL might pull the Super Bowl from the state.

Most bills lean on the precept of “religious belief” to rationalize discrimination against gays. Brewer took issue with that in announcing her veto: “Senate Bill 1062 does not address a specific or present concern related to religious liberty in Arizona. I have not heard one example where business owners’ religious liberty has been violated.”

In Pennsylvania, state Rep. Gordon Denlinger, R-Lancaster County, has circulated a memo about his “Freedom of Conscience Amendment” to the state Constitution. He describes an effort to allow individuals and business owners to refuse service to anyone based on a “sincerely held belief,” religion apparently not required for discrimination in Pennsylvania.

Denlinger asserts that because his bill has not been introduced, it’s unfair to prejudge what it will say.

“The draft language of my bill is currently being reviewed by constitutional law experts, and I will not introduce any final language until I am confident it is well vetted,” Denlinger said in a statement posted on his website. “Adding an amendment to our state Constitution will have far-reaching implications, arriving at the proper wording must be handled with thoughtfulness and precision.”

Denlinger added: “Government-sanctioned persecution of individuals and entities holding to traditional beliefs is not only coming — it is already here.”

There is a real conflict between government mandate and religious liberty. Attempts under the Affordable Care Act to force businesses to provide insurance coverage to employees for contraception has been challenged by organizations from a variety of Christian denominations. They include Mennonite owners of a wood specialties manufacturer in Denlinger’s Lancaster County.

But there ought to be a reasonable distinction between, “The government can’t tell me what to believe,” and, “Gays are not welcome.”

Denlinger described the challenge of trying to “thread the needle of protecting individuals and entities at the level of sincerely held beliefs, while not opening the door to some outcomes that might raise some concerns with the majority.”

No less an authority than former attorney general and current Gov. Tom Corbett has pointed to his religious beliefs in defending his opposition to gay marriage. Corbett has also publicly maintained that if the Legislature passes a bill that protects gays from discrimination in housing or employment, he will sign it into law.

A bipartisan group of 92 lawmakers have cosponsored just such a bill.

Rural Pennsylvania lawmakers are strikingly absent from the list. None. Not one of the lawmakers I routinely cover — whose districts are outside Pennsylvania’s urban centers — is a cosponsor of the House version of the bill making it illegal to discriminate based on sexual orientation for hiring, housing or public accommodations.

Two senators I cover — Sen. John Wozniak, D-Cambria, and Sen. Richard Kasunic, D-Somerset — have put their names on the companion bill.

So, as far as that goes, Pennsylvania appears closer to protecting the rights of gays than protecting the rights of those who would like a state-issued shield to discriminate against them.

John Finnerty reports from the CNHI Harrisburg Bureau for The Meadville Tribune and other Pennsylvania newspapers owned by Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. Email him at and follow him on Twitter @cnhipa.