Shippensburg Borough Council voted July 21 to advertise a non-discrimination ordinance in response to requests from members of the LGBTQ+ community who have faced unnecessary prejudice based on their sexual orientation while applying for housing in town.
The matter was brought to council’s attention last year by Michael Bugbee, a Shippensburg University student who was denied the opportunity to rent an apartment in town because of his sexual orientation.
During the meeting’s public comment period, Dr. Corrine Bertram, associate professor of psychology at Shippensburg University, read a letter she sent to the borough in support of the ordinance.
Her letter reads: “Dear Shippensburg Borough Council members, my name is Corrine Bertram. Although I am not a resident of Shippensburg, I have worked for Shippensburg University for 10 years as an Associate Professor of Psychology. Over that time, I have traveled to Shippensburg several times per week and been a patron at your restaurants, bars, and local businesses. I am writing to you after learning that one of our Shippensburg University students was twice denied housing in the borough after landlords learned that he was gay and married to his male partner. I have an investment in your borough being committed to the fair and just treatment of all its residents, including those who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, and/or transgender (LGBT). The adoption of non-discrimination policies that include protections for sexual orientation and gender identity not only protect individual renters from being denied housing based on their identities, they also protect me as someone who uses public accommodations in your borough, and they signal to prospective students, faculty, and staff that Shippensburg is located in a community that has the bare minimum of protections for LGBT communities. When my partner and I visited south-central Pennsylvania after I had been hired at Shippensburg University, we contemplated living in Shippensburg. It would have been a shorter commute for me, but we ultimately decided to live in Carlisle because it was both closer to Harrisburg where there would be more employment opportunities for my partner and where there were more indications that we would be tolerated as a couple, if not always welcomed. In 2016, my partner spoke at a public forum in support of a non-discrimination ordinance that Carlisle adopted that same year. I was in attendance as Carlisle became one of the 58 municipalities in PA to adopt non-discrimination policies inclusive of LGBT people. We also advocated for a non-discrimination policy in Binghamton, New York, when we were residents there. Your own adoption of such an ordinance and the accompanying checks that will need to follow is important to me personally as I utilize public accommodations like restaurants, bars, and shops in Shippensburg. My sexual orientation and gender identity should not be the basis of the denial of services in any of these places. Likewise, a property owner should not be able to deny housing to someone based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Denial of public accommodations like housing create psychological harm as residents (or potential residents) understand themselves as excluded from the full rights and responsibilities in your town. These experiences of discrimination disrupt lives, create unsafe, unhoused conditions, and harm the reputation and enrollment of Shippensburg University. In the current financial atmosphere of Pennsylvania and the PA State System of Higher Education, universities are fighting to attract and retain every student we can. Shippensburg University also wants to draw a diverse and vibrant staff and faculty. Potential employees see local non-discrimination policies as filling in the gaps left by the state of Pennsylvania. It signals a commitment to diversity. Anything that causes a potential or current student, employee, or resident of Shippensburg to reconsider their choice of Shippensburg or Shippensburg University is a threat to our livelihoods, workplaces, and communities.”
Sonja Payne of the Shippensburg Community Resources Coalition also spoke up in support of the ordinance and human relations commission.
“I also went to SU for my undergrad and master’s. I am proud to be a part of this community, and am especially proud to see our response during this pandemic, and come together and work together. But, I can’t be fully proud of my community because someone was discriminated against based on their sexual orientation. How can we successfully move forward, especially during this time of unrest? I strongly believe that if we are to move forward as a community, we really need to be a place that is welcoming to everyone. I don’t want to live in a community where people don’t feel safe.”
Dr. Dorlisa Minnick, associate professor with the SU Center for Land Use and Sustainability, was also in support of the move.
“I urge council to pass the non-discrimination ordinance,” Minnick said. “Who a person lives with, loves or is married to is not a business issue.”
During discussion, Vice President Mitchell Burrows said: “One thing we can do is adopt a resolution that simply says discrimination is bad, and we don’t want discrimination in this town. Period. Another thing we can do is adopt an ordinance and form a human relations commission that says we don’t want any discrimination, and if you do commit an order of discrimination, then there will be measures taken to correct that. I don’t sense any reason we should say something we aren’t willing to stand by. If we think something is bad, we should do something about it. On the other side of this issue is whether or not this is the role of this level of government to enact an ordinance that governs that. A resolution without teeth is completely pointless, and it is due to the faults of our state that we are forced to act on this. I move that we form a human relations commission and authorize advertising of an ordinance.”
Councilwoman Josefine Smith seconded the motion, and added, “I don’t think we have a choice because we don’t have teeth at higher levels. We are doing a disservice to the community if we don’t do something on a local level. The higher levels aren’t always available to our community members. We need to take a stand for them to say this is not unacceptable. One thing that’s been mentioned in past discussions is, ‘Well, there might not be a need for it.’ I really appreciate all of the different members of the community that came out to show their support. And obviously there is a need or there wouldn’t be a request for it. Our community has spoken out that they want protections for their neighbors and themselves, then we have the responsibility to enact something.”
Mayor Kathy Coy also urged council to adopt the ordinance and form the human relations commission.
“I am going to urge council to adopt this ordinance to show our citizens that we stand united, and we condemn any form of bigotry in this community,” she said.
Councilman Keith Swartz spoke out in opposition of the ordinance and commission because of the provisions that are already in place at the state level, and the potential legal costs associated with the commission. Swartz asked if Bugbee addressed the issue at the state level with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, noting there are legal venues that citizens can take.
“I think we are creating a liability for creating this commission,” he said. “I don’t truly believe this should be handled at this level. My heart does break for Mr. Bugbee if he was discriminated against, and the student who was discriminated against. But, I have to ask if they retained a civil rights attorney and went to the PA Human Relations Commission, because they do report success in these instances. Therefore, this population has rights. If we do this, we are going to be at great legal expense with potential litigation to defend our ordinance. I am all for a resolution. I think we should adopt a policy for anyone that walks in the door, and immediately give them contact information for the PA Human Relations Commission and refer them to a civil rights attorney.”
Burrows rebutted, noting: “A couple points-we brought in a representative from the state human relations commission. What advice they gave is would be absolutely, without a doubt, we support adoption of an ordinance like this in local municipalities, and encourage all local municipalities to pass similar ordinances. For legal expenses, we have heard from several municipalities that said they have not obtained nightmarish legal expenses as one of the downsides of an ordinance like this. I have faith if someone was violating a local ordinance like this, they would back down when going against a municipality and, hopefully, their moral compass would kick in.”
Burrows did say he agreed with Swartz that a municipality should not have to enact this type of legislation at the local level.
Smith also rebutted Swartz’s comments, noting: “I am aware that there are state level protections in place, but I would guess most people at a local level might not know about those. It also seems like an unnecessary barrier to go to the state and then pay for an attorney. Those seem like unnecessary steps to protect citizens who shouldn’t be in this situation in the first place. I think this is not a question of political party. I think it’s a question of values. At a local level, we need to put our money where our mouth is. If we want to say we are a community of diversity, then we need to respond to them when they say they need protection. If we are going to make a statement as a community, these groups deserve protection and we need to help all people. In this day and age, it’s where we need to go.
At the end of the day, we wouldn’t be put in this situation if our state and federal legislators would have put the proper language in place (in existing legislation).”
Swartz said he wants to see the facts in these cases.
“I want to see the results where we need to do this commission. I want to know if someone was discriminated against, if they went to the commission, and they failed. Then I can say that we should pursue it. Otherwise, I feel it is a waste of our resources.”
Burrows also noted he feels the proposed language in the borough’s ordinance would protect them from potential costly litigation if a case arises.
“I absolutely agree that the way it is written protects us, and gives us the ability to try and solve problems in our own community.”
After discussion, council voted 4-1 to advertise the ordinance and form the human relations commission, with Burrows, Smith, President Bruce Hockersmith and Councilman John Alosi in favor. Swartz cast the dissenting vote. Councilwoman Sandy Mailey was absent.
After the vote and further discussion, the board amended the initial motion to include the resolution indicating the borough does not condone any discrimination, until the board can move forward with the ordinance vote at a future meeting. The resolution passed 4-1, with Burrows casting the only dissenting vote because he doesn’t feel resolutions without accompanying ordinances hold weight, noting it’s like kissing a boo-boo.
“It’s imaginary and does nothing,” he added.
Smith said she only voted for the resolution so the borough can have something in place now, and feels it is a good starting point. “The resolution isn’t enough,” she added. “It’s not substantial enough, but it’s a start.”
The non-discrimination ordinance will be up for discussion and a vote the first meeting in September, to be held at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 1.