Chambersburg council may rescind non-discrimination ordinance it passed just months ago
In fall 2021, the Borough of Chambersburg joined the list of 70-some municipalities in Pennsylvania with a non-discrimination ordinance covering the gap in Pennsylvania law to protect the local LGBTQ+ community.
At its council meeting on Monday, it might become the first town to rescind such an ordinance.
The agenda for council's Jan. 3 reorganization meeting included an item to appoint the first members of the new human relations commission that was created by the ordinance to handle complaints. Instead, talk turned to abolishing the ordinance.
A motion to direct the solicitor to prepare a repealing ordinance passed 6-3-1, according to Jeffrey Stonehill, borough manager. Discussion and a vote are on the Jan. 24 agenda.
The ordinance was approved 7-3 when there was a Democratic majority on council, but the makeup flipped to a Republican majority with the November election.
First Ward representative Allen Coffman, now president of the council, said the ordinance "accomplishes nothing" and is not necessary, while supporters on council and in the community are disappointed it may be repealed.
Chambersburg's non-discrimination ordinance
The ordinance "declares it to be the public policy of the Borough of Chambersburg to foster equality and equal opportunity for all citizens, regardless of race, color, sex, religion, religious creed or belief, ancestry, national origin, familial status, marital status, age (except in public accommodations), veteran status, mental or physical disability or handicap or the use of service or assistance animals or the handler or trainer or such service animals, in all matters affecting employment, public accommodation, housing and commercial property, and to safeguard the right of all persons to remain free from discrimination or discriminatory practices in any of the foregoing aspects of their lives."
The ordinance goes on to say sex "may refer to sex assigned at birth, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, gender transition and/or transgender."
An unneeded duplication?
Coffman voted "no" to the proposed ordinance in the fall and said he remains dead set against it.
The ordinance establishes the local human relations commission, which Coffman called a duplication of what's available at the state level. In addition, it does not include penalties and asks, but does not require, people to meet with the commission.
"The ordinance accomplishes nothing," Coffman said, noting members of the exploratory committee were hand-picked and there was no doubt what they would conclude.
He added the ordinance is a carbon copy of Gettysburg's and was neither written nor reviewed by the borough solicitor.
At a four-hour meeting in September attended by more than 200 people, for and against, in-person and online, both Coffman and Bill Everly Jr., Fifth Ward representative and now council vice president, said the ordinance was being rushed through.
"My question to everyone in this room is, what is the big hurry?" Everly said at the time. "Why is this being forced tonight? Why isn't there more discussion, as both sides have made productive comments tonight? Why isn't there going to be more dialogue about this? Why is this being forced down council's throat tonight?"
It was Everly who made the motion on Jan. 3 initiating the work to repeal the ordinance.
The argument for equal protection
Alice Elia, who represents the First Ward and was council president last year, said Pennsylvania is the only state in the northeast that does not protect LGBTQ+ community by state law.
"Over my time on council I have been contacted by many constituents and community members who are concerned by this lack of coverage and were asking council to take action to close this gap in protections," Elia said. "It is important to me that everyone in our community is offered the same level of protection from discrimination. There is no reason for anyone to be excluded from this basic protection."
Elia got the ball rolling in April 2021 with the appointment of the exploratory committee to research ordinances and talk with community members as well as experts. The resulting report included the ordinance, which is the same as one adopted earlier by the Borough of Gettysburg.
"Local members of the LGBTQ community community say they do not want special treatment — they want to be treated equally and for Borough Council to represent everyone in the borough," the report says.
Kathy Leedy, who represents the Third Ward and was a member of the exploratory committee, said it is clear Pennsylvania's 1955 Human Relations Act does not include LGBTQ protections.
"The Chambersburg ordinance treats everyone equally in matters of housing, employment and public accommodation," Leedy said. "That is a step forward. Borough council members should represent everyone so I support the non-discrimination ordinance."
She said she is disappointed, but not surprised the new council leadership wants to rescind the ordinance.
"Chambersburg does not need that type of notoriety," Leedy added.
"I think that repealing this ordinance will impact the community in a negative way," Elia said. "It would send a terrible message about how 'welcoming' our community is."
Elia and Leedy's views on the value of the ordinance were echoed in a virtual press conference Thursday, hosted by the Pennsylvania Youth Congress, featuring several local speakers.
Michael Bugbee grew up in Chambersburg and successfully advocated for such an ordinance in Shippensburg. He read a statement from an anonymous person from Chambersburg, who identifies as queer, describing housing and work discrimination in the community.
Pastor Renata Harper, a woman of color who has been discriminated against, cited the commandment "love our neighbors as ourselves," adding that according to Jesus, "everyone is a potential neighbor."
She asked if the faith community wanted to be known for extending protection to everyone then rescinding it.
The ordinance affirms that discrimination is not acceptable, said Dr. Nicole Hewitt of Hewitt Consulting, Research and Training, who was involved with the exploratory committee.
"We want to help our community grow," said Hewitt, adding, "We want to move forward, not backward."
The non-discrimination ordinance is not just good social policy, but also effective business strategy, according to Megan Shreve, CEO of South-Central Community Action Programs. It creates a culture that will keep young people here and attract the best and the brightest to the community, she said.
Local businessman Clint Bolte of C. Clint Bolte and Associates commended the due diligence that went into drafting the ordinance and said the human relations commission provides an avenue to resolve issues locally, without the time and costs associated with taking them to the state level.
He added this should not be a political issue and such ordinances have received bipartisan support in other communities.
Bolte said council members are men and women of integrity and he is confident they will vote in the best interest of the citizens of Chambersburg.
Chambersburg borough council meeting
The meeting will begin at 7 p.m. Monday, Jan. 24, in council chambers at Chambersburg Borough Hall, 100 S. Second St. Those attending should use the rear parking lot entrance.
The meeting also will be available online. For the Zoom link, people can contact the borough secretary at firstname.lastname@example.org or click on the Chambersburg Agenda Management System, called BoardDocs, on the Transparency page of the borough website, www.chambersburgpa.gov
Comments by citizens will be permitted before any decision is made.
Shawn Hardy is a reporter with Gannett's Franklin County newspapers in south-central Pennsylvania — the Echo Pilot in Greencastle, The Record Herald in Waynesboro and the Public Opinion in Chambersburg. She has more than 35 years of journalism experience. Reach her at email@example.com