By A.B. Hill

Special to The CS&T

In a fast track maneuver, legislation with the potential to threaten religious liberty narrowly advanced from the Pennsylvania House of Representatives State Government Committee with a 12 to 11 vote on March 11. The bill, known as HB 300, would add “sexual orientation and gender identity or expression” to the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act in an attempt to have them considered protected classes. The PHRA currently forbids discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations because of race, color, religious creed, ancestry, age, handicap or national origin.

Under the current statute, in some cases, religious organizations get an exemption to conduct their affairs on the basis of religious creed or gender when there is a “bona fide occupational qualification” to do so. HB 300 allows no exemptions.

The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference (PCC) opposes the legislation because of its potential threat to the religious liberty of organizations and inspaniduals.

Robert J. O’Hara Jr., executive director of the PCC, said: “It is the position of the Catholic Church that every person should be treated with dignity and respect. Church teachings make a distinction, however, between someone having a homosexual orientation and homosexual behavior. House Bill 300, at the very least, blurs that distinction.”

“This bill constitutes an effort by the government to say to people that their moral code or their belief system must be abandoned – that those who disagree will be forced to conform or suffer monetary damages and legal processes if they do not, in their daily lives, embrace homosexuality,” O’Hara said.

The bill authorizes the development of a new curriculum in public schools dealing with sexual orientation and gender identity or expression. Although current state regulations permit parents to opt their children out of religiously objectionable instruction, regulations are easily subject to change. Opting-out itself could identify a student as “homophobic.”

Other states with similar measures have disallowed parents to opt out, resulting in a state mandate to teach students that their parents, who may object to the acceptance and promotion of homosexual conduct on religious grounds, are in effect “bigots.”

House State Government Committee roll call for the Philadelphia Archdiocese (a “yes” vote is in favor of the bill; a “no” vote reflects the PCC’s position):

Louise W. Bishop – yes

Brendan F. Boyle – yes

Lawrence H. Curry -yes

Mark B. Cohen – yes

Babette Josephs, committee chair – yes

Michael H. O’Brien – yes

Frank L. Oliver – yes

Marguerite Quinn – no

Greg Vitali – yes

John T. Galloway and Rick Taylor did not vote.

The next step for HB 300 is consideration by the House Appropriations Committee.

A.B. Hill is communications director for the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference.