Pennsylvania's three United Methodist bishops have called on state lawmakers to pass legislation known as the Pennsylvania Non-Discrimination Act during the current session. It would extend protections against discrimination guaranteed to most residents in the 60-year-old Human Relations Act to lesbian, bi-sexual, gay and transgender individuals.
A joint letter from Bishops Peggy Johnson of the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference, Jeremiah Park of the Susquehanna Conference and Thomas J. Bickerton of the Western Pennsylvania Conference was presented at a press conference April 22 at Grace United Methodist Church near the state capitol in Harrisburg.
“Since 1955, our state has recognized that certain groups of people have experienced unjust discrimination and has acted to protect them through the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act…” the statement said. “For decades, we as United Methodist Christians have been protected from unjust discrimination by this act of law.”
But the law, they noted, does not protect lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, who have experienced routine discrimination because of who they are.
“Because of our commitment to the gospel of Jesus Christ, we have historically sought to advocate for full equality under the law for other groups which experience routine discrimination,” the Bishops said. “We must act to protect them by updating the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act to include sexual orientation and gender identity or expression.”
The legislation to ban discrimination for LBGT individuals was introduced in the 2013 session and had 90 sponsors in the House and 25 in the Senate. It was referred to state government committees in both chambers, but no votes were ever taken. Then-Gov. Tom Corbett supported broadening the ban, as does Gov. Tom Wolf.
"The companies and countries that are thriving in today’s global economy are those that are committed to diversity, inclusion, and fairness," Wolf said in his March budget address. "All Pennsylvania’s families deserve those same opportunities, no matter what their race, sexual orientation, where they started life, or who they are."
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have said they plan to reintroduce the legislation to expand the Human Relations Act’s protections to include sexual orientation.
In their statement, the Bishops acknowledged that "The United Methodist Church is having painful and complex conversations within our tradition about the morality of same-sex relationships. At the same time, we have been very clear that the LGBT people in our congregations, families, workplaces, and communities have sacred worth as children of God and should experience the freedom and dignity of participating in civil society as equals under the law.”
The denomination’s Social Principles state:
We affirm all persons as equally valuable in the sight of God. We therefore work toward societies in which each person’s value is recognized, maintained, and strengthened. We support the basic rights of all persons to equal access to housing, education, communication, employment, medical care, legal redress for grievances, and physical protection. We deplore acts of hate or violence against groups or persons based on race, color, national origin, ethnicity, age, gender, disability, status, economic condition, sexual orientation, gender identity, or religious affiliation. (162.III)
“Because of our faith and our desire to follow the example of Jesus Christ, we recognize that it is more important to treat one another with love and respect than it is to judge one another,” the Bishops said. “In Paul’s letter to the Romans, we are reminded in the second chapter that it is not ours to judge others. Only God can judge the soul of a person.”
They added: “Religious freedom means we have the right to our own personal beliefs about the moral issues related to sexual orientation or gender identity. Nothing in this proposed law challenges that and the same religious exemptions that have been in the law since 1955 already preserve our freedom to hire and celebrate marriages according to our church teachings.
“However, it has never been the case that religious freedom has meant that we can impose our own religious beliefs on others outside of our church or restrict their liberty to live as equals in our communities. We encourage United Methodist business owners and landlords to treat LGBT employees, customers, and tenants with the same love, respect, and hospitality that Jesus offered to all he encountered.
“We recognize that many of our members and others in society are struggling with changes in our civil laws related to marriage. Many of us understand marriage to be a relationship between one man and one woman bound together by God. Religious freedom allows us to retain that understanding within the context of our religious creeds and rituals.
“The civil contract of marriage, however, is open to all in our society and has been recognized as a human right by the United Nations. Our society has decided to allow same-sex couples to have access to the more than 1000 legal benefits of civil marriage which protect these couples and their children.”
See the complete statement from the bishops.