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Pennsylvania takes a stance for LGBTQ with the signing of two executive orders that ban employment and workspace discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Credit: Julio Sosa

Pennsylvania has joined a number of states in taking a stance on hot-button LGBTQ issues.

On April 7, Gov. Tom Wolf signed two executive orders banning discrimination against employees or applicants for employment based on their sexual orientation, as well as all agencies contracting with the state. The laws are a marked contrast to other regulations passed recently in North Carolina and Mississippi, which many LGBTQ advocates see as setbacks to their cause.

“It [Pennsylvania’s legislation] is an important first step in equity,” LGBT Center Director Bob Schoenberg said.

Schoenberg said the United States needs to implement national protections for individuals who may face discrimination based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. Though he said that progress is being made, he maintained that “the fact that something can happen, such as this happened in North Carolina, is an indication that we still aren’t there.”

Wolf’s actions only cover the public sector, though — excluding those in the private sector.

“I feel that Pennsylvania hasn’t taken steps to protect LGBT Pennsylvanians from the discrimination of other private actors,” Penn Law professor Craig Konnoth said.

One hotly-debated issue is the balance between religious freedom and what Konnoth calls “people being able to function.”

“We cannot allow people to claim idiosyncratic religious beliefs and exempt themselves from these requirements by saying that they are being forced into servitude every time they’ve got to comply with the requirements of civilized society,” Konnoth said.

Recently, both North Carolina and Mississippi passed laws that LGBTQ rights advocates see as setbacks to their cause. But Konnoth believes these events will be contained in the south.

“I think that this is an isolated regional phenomenon, instead of a country-wide phenomenon,” he said.

On March 23, North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory signed the Public Facilities Privacy & Security Act, or the “bathroom bill.” It mandates that transgender people who have not anatomically and legally changed their gender have no right to use public bathrooms of the gender with which they identify.

Proponents of the bill argued that it protects women’s restrooms from sexual predators who claim to be transgender, while opponents view it as an anti-LGBTQ regulation.

The legislation has not gone unnoticed — instead, it’s gaining attention and causing economic damage in North Carolina. Bruce Springsteen cancelled his concert in Greensboro and PayPal withdrew its plans to expand in the state.

Since Tennessee is likely the next state to pass similar legislation, Sarah Kate Ellis, the president and CEO of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, is calling to the music industry to stop it. Miley Cyrus, Billy Ray Cyrus, Bryan Adams and Bruce Springsteen are among the artists who have spoken out against these bills.

On April 5, Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant signed legislation that allows individuals and institutions to deny service on the basis of religious beliefs. Under this legislation, if it is against a bakery owner’s religion to bake a cake for a gay wedding, that baker can deny service.

Wharton freshman Eric Hoover supported the law, arguing that “no one has the human right of having a cake baked for them. No one has a human right to be served by others.” He believes that this is an issue of religious liberty, but also of forced servitude.

“It comes down to the key question of: do we have a fundamental human right for someone else to serve us?” Hoover said. “Do we have a right to have a cake baked for us for a wedding, or does a business owner have the right to say no?”

But according to Konnoth, that is not the case. “No one is forcing individuals to go into the marketplace. No one is forcing you to open a restaurant. No one is forcing you to become a civil servant,” he said. “But if you have those jobs, if you take on that role in society, then the idea is that you’ve got to behave in a certain way.”

A board member of the Penn Queer and Asian Society from Mississippi who wished to remain anonymous because she has not yet come out publicly expressed distaste with the legislation.

“I am very frustrated, to be honest ... This is a state where I grew up in and this is a state where I got to know people,” she said. “The fact that this law was passed sort of slaps in the face basically all of that.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article included a headline that mischaracterized Gov. Tom Wolf's executive order as a law. 

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