HARRISBURG - Perennial fixtures on the legislative calendar, bills to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation have gone nowhere in the last decade.
This time, the tables may be turning. Companion bills in the House and Senate have attracted a record number of cosponsors, among them the General Assembly's first two openly gay lawmakers, while a new poll shows solid majority support across the state for such a ban.
The bills, introduced Tuesday with 102 cosponsors including both Republicans and Democrats, would ban discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity or expression in employment, housing, credit, and public accommodations.
State Rep. Dan Frankel (D., Allegheny) said the ban was needed to end "the last vestige of legal discrimination in Pennsylvania - discrimination based on an individual's sexual orientation or gender identity or expression." Laws already ban discrimination based on race, religion, or gender.
As if to remind people that Pennsylvania's social conservatives are alive and well, Rep. Daryl Metcalfe (R., Butler) - in whose committee the antidiscrimination bill would be considered - reintroduced a bill of his own Tuesday: a constitutional "marriage protection" amendment.
"The definition of marriage as 'the union of one man and one woman,' defended and upheld by this legislation, is the traditional definition of marriage that has been recognized and accepted throughout history and the world for centuries," said Metcalfe, who sponsored a similar bill that passed the House in 2006. "Neither homosexual special interests gathered under the immoral umbrella of the ACLU, nor the Obama administration's Department of Justice or any activist court should decide this critical issue for our commonwealth."
The amendment would have to pass in two consecutive legislative sessions and be approved by a voter referendum. Thirty-one states have approved similar amendments.
Emboldened gay-rights supporters lashed out at Metcalfe's bill and issued a news release pointing to its shorter list of cosponsors - 27, all Republicans. "The 'marriage amendment' is unneeded and unwanted, and more legislators are realizing this," Frankel contended.
For his part, Metcalfe vowed to defeat the antidiscrimination bill in his committee. "I think it's shocking that people want to force government to recognize through policy their sexual desires and put it into law," he said.
A recent Susquehanna Poll found growing statewide support - over 60 percent - for the antibias measures contained in the bill.
At a news conference attended by at least 20 legislators, union representatives, and faith and business leaders, Rep. Brian K. Sims (D., Phila.) called the bill's introduction historic. Sims is one of the state's first two openly gay lawmakers. The other, Rep. Mike Fleck (R., Huntingdon), attended but did not speak.
"As a gay man, I know firsthand how important these protections are and how fundamental they are to the safety and security that so many Pennsylvanians take for granted," Sims said. "As a legislator, I see every day how the commonwealth is failing in its promise to treat all people with dignity, respect, and equality under the law."
Delaware is the 11th state to allow same-sex marriage after a divided state Senate gave its approval Tuesday. Less than an hour after the 12-9 vote, Gov. Jack Markell signed the measure into law.
"I do not intend to make any of you wait one moment longer," Markell told about 200 supporters who erupted in cheers and applause after the Senate vote.
"I am elated," said Scott Forrest, 50, of Newark, who entered into a civil union last year with his partner of almost 21 years, Kevin.
The bill was introduced in the Democrat-controlled legislature barely a year after Delaware began recognizing same-sex civil unions. The bill won passage two weeks ago in the state House, 23-18.
No new civil unions will be performed after July 1, and existing civil unions will be converted to marriages over the next year.