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Hatboro mayor vetoes anti-gay-bias measure

As one of Philadelphia's biggest suburbs is poised to join the growing list of communities enacting a new kind of antidiscrimination ordinance, another municipality has opted out.

As one of Philadelphia's biggest suburbs is poised to join the growing list of communities enacting a new kind of antidiscrimination ordinance, another municipality has opted out.

Hatboro Mayor Norm Hawkes vetoed a measure Monday night that would have established a borough commission to review prejudice claims - a step advocates argued was necessary to extend protection to gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people not currently shielded under state law.

Lower Merion commissioners are expected to approve a similar measure at a special meeting Wednesday night.

"I don't feel anyone should be discriminated against anyplace or anywhere," Hawkes said Tuesday. "But I think this is much better handled on a state vs. local level."

Across Pennsylvania, 17 municipalities - including Philadelphia, West Chester, State College, and Doylestown - have enacted ordinances prohibiting discrimination in housing, employment, and public accommodations based on sexual orientation or gender identity. At least 11 more, such as Radnor and Haverford, have measures pending before their governing bodies.

While the proposals protect all minority groups, pressure to pass them has come largely from the LGBT community, which says its members are left unprotected by state and federal statutes.

State law bars discrimination based on race, gender, religion, and ethnicity. But 21 other states, including New Jersey, have added protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

"I've always thought of this as a very local issue," said Jason Landau Goodman, a University of Pennsylvania student who has led the charge to pass such a law in his hometown of Lower Merion. "It's basic protection of residents in the township."

Hatboro's ordinance, approved last month by a 4-3 vote, would have created a volunteer human-relations board to hear complaints from residents who felt their rights had been violated. If the panel found discrimination had occurred, its findings could be introduced as evidence in a lawsuit.

The proposed board was modeled on those created in recent years in other Philadelphia suburbs. While none of those panels has reported any complaints, advocates argue their existence sends a clear message.

"If there's a problem, there's something in place to handle it," said Bill George, a past president of the Hatboro Chamber of Commerce and a gay man who argued in support of the measure.

Hawkes said allowing untrained volunteers to decide discrimination cases could open up Hatboro taxpayers to legal liability.

"I feel the state has much better resources to handle these situations," he said.

The legislature, however, has shown little interest. In the last five sessions, State Rep. Dan B. Frankel (D., Allegheny) has offered a bill to add LGBT antibias protections, but has yet to get it to a floor vote. Though he plans to try again next session, he concedes that the chances are slim.

"It would be very hard next session, given that Republicans control both chambers," he said, "and the majority leader in the House has been clearly opposed."

That's why Lower Merion, like other suburbs in recent years, decided to act, said Stephen Glassman, chairman of the state Human Relations Commission. After months of wrangling over wording, the township commissioners are expected to approve an ordinance.

There is a move in Hatboro to override Hawkes' veto. The council is to reconvene next week on the issue, though the ordinance's supporters concede that getting the necessary five votes on the seven-member council is a long shot.