Haddon Heights and 11 other public school districts in New Jersey are road-testing a new middle and high school curriculum that includes information about lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered people and will be rolled out statewide next fall. This welcome development could hold useful lessons for Pennsylvania — and for any jurisdictions concerned about the potential impact of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling expected this spring about whether existing federal employment discrimination protections include LGBT Americans.
Measures New Jersey passed in 1991 and 2006 already prohibit workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. In 2018, the bill mandating the new curriculum, which also includes material about the contributions disabled people make to the American story, won strong support from educational and grassroots organizations and was approved by overwhelming majorities in both houses of the Democrat-dominated legislature. On the other hand, despite repeated efforts by individual Democrats such as State Sen. Larry Farnese and State Rep. Brian Sims, of Philadelphia, and others, Pennsylvania’s Republican-controlled statehouse in Harrisburg has historically shown little or no inclination to move legislation involving the interests of the state’s estimated 400,000 LGBT people.
As The Inquirer’s Melanie Burney reported this week, New Jersey’s curriculum program has so far been generally well-received. But it’s also drawing predictable fire from organizations insisting that secular classroom material about LGBT people somehow violates religious freedom and parental rights. That’s quite a feat for, say, a high school history lesson that includes the fact that Bayard Rustin, who helped organize Martin Luther King Jr.’s epic March on Washington, was a gay man.
In New Jersey and Pennsylvania, fierce opposition to LGBT rights often emanates from well-funded national organizations such as the American Family Association — which has been labeled a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center and has helped stymie recent legislative efforts in Harrisburg. Others argue the state’s historically gerrymandered congressional districts also have an impact, helping empower and sustain a political establishment more reliably conservative than the overall population.
Even measures that in New Jersey have drawn bipartisan support, such as the bill Gov. Phil Murphy signed Tuesday banning the so-called gay and transgender “panic defense” in criminal homicide cases, would be nonstarters in Pennsylvania, where the existing hate-crime law hasn’t been amended to include criminal acts motivated by anti-LGBT bias. Philadelphia and more than 50 other municipalities or counties in the state protect LGBT people from employment discrimination. But across much of Pennsylvania, an employer can dismiss someone simply for not being heterosexual. This is simply wrong by any standard.