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Pa. expands protections for LGBT people, but hate-crime law still doesn’t include them

Assaulting or even killing an LGBT person is still not considered a hate crime under Pennsylvania law.

Revelers at the annual gay pride parade hold up a giant rainbow flag in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Sunday, June 3, 2018.
Revelers at the annual gay pride parade hold up a giant rainbow flag in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Sunday, June 3, 2018.Read moreNELSON ANTOINE

It's a paradox: People can now file complaints to the State of Pennsylvania about LGBT discrimination. But the state still doesn't classify any crimes against LGBT people as hate crimes.

How can these situations coexist? We explain:

Why the state just started accepting complaints of LGBT discrimination

The Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, which investigates complaints of discrimination in employment, housing, education, and public accommodations (places such as restaurants, hotels, theaters, coffee shops, and shopping malls), this month added sexual orientation and gender identity to its definition of protected groups. That means people can now file complaints with the commission if they feel they were discriminated against in those settings because of their LGBT identity.

"We cannot continue to tell people to wait: 'Wait for us to get to a point where we can make sure that you're not discriminated against,' " Chad Dion Lassiter, the commission's executive director, said. "Being a human being in a democracy, people need to be protected."

The commission will investigate and, if enough evidence exists, can advise those responsible to stop a discriminatory practice, implement training, or award economic damages. Pennsylvania law also prohibits discrimination based on race, age, sex, ancestry, national origin, religion, or disability.

Previously, people could only file complaints about LGBT discrimination with municipalities that bar it. Of Pennsylvania's 2,562 municipalities, 51 have laws that do so, according to the LGBT rights group Equality Pennsylvania. Those municipalities, which include Philadelphia, account for nearly half the state's population.

(To file an LGBT discrimination complaint with the state, you must mail a complaint form within 180 days of the incident to the Human Relations Commission's nearest regional office. The Philadelphia office, which serves Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Montgomery, and Philadelphia Counties, is at 110 N. Eighth St., Suite 501, Philadelphia, Pa. 19107.)

Why don’t the new guidelines make crimes against LGBT people hate crimes?

The Human Relations Commission investigates discriminatory but generally nonviolent acts, such as turning down a job applicant because of age or denying a person a house because of skin color. Hate crimes — which can include assault, destruction of property, or threats motivated by characteristics of the victim's identity — are a separate category, and they're handled by police.

But under Pennsylvania law, assaulting or even killing an LGBT person is not considered a hate crime. Some cities, such as Philadelphia, have closed this loophole by updating their hate-crime laws to include sexual orientation or gender identity. (Philly did so after a gay couple were beaten in Center City in 2014.) But many municipalities have not.

In municipalities without these protections, a suspect can still be charged with assault, murder, or other crimes. But suspected perpetrators cannot be charged with a hate crime even if they targeted someone because of his or her sexual orientation or gender identity.

Pennsylvania once actually protected LGBT people in its hate-crimes law

In 2002, the state legislature passed an amendment to the hate-crimes law, known as the Ethnic Intimidation Act, that made Pennsylvania only the fifth state in the nation to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people.

The amendment came under fire in 2004, when five protesters at a gay-rights festival in Philadelphia were charged with hate crimes after their bullhorn preachings angered the crowd and they resisted a police order to pull back. Civil rights groups raised concerns that authorities had misapplied the law, and the protesters called for LGBT people to be removed as a protected group.

In 2007, Commonwealth Court struck down the earlier expansion of the hate-crimes law, saying the state legislature had unlawfully inserted the language into an unrelated agricultural-terrorism bill (one of the protesters from 2004 had helped bring the case to court). In 2008, the state Supreme Court upheld the lower court's decision.

>> READ MORE: Tracking crimes against LGBT people is hard. The Justice Department could make it even harder

Some politicians, such as State Sen. Larry Farnese (D., Phila.), have tried for years to push legislation that would add LGBT people back to the state's hate-crimes law. Last year, State Reps. Kevin J. Boyle (D., Phila.) and Tom Murt (R., Montgomery) cosponsored legislation, with Boyle calling the state's lack of hate-crime protections a "national embarrassment."

Race, color, religion, and national origin are protected classes under Pennsylvania's current hate-crime law.