Haverford antidiscrimination ordinance faces court challenge

Lou Devecchis , 50, had pushed for the ordinance.
Lou Devecchis , 50, had pushed for the ordinance.
Posted: October 24, 2011

Haverford Township Commissioner Larry Holmes left the board's Feb. 14 meeting feeling tremendous pride after passage of an antidiscrimination ordinance he championed.

Eight months later, Holmes is still proud of the proposal, but it turns out the fight for it didn't end that night.

Resident Fred Teal filed a challenge in Delaware County Court, alleging the township failed to provide proper public notice of changes to the ordinance between first and second readings and exceeded state law.

"I personally don't agree with homosexuality," Teal said. "While I don't think anyone should be discriminated against, this is a legal issue."

Holmes said he was confident the township would prevail.

"Despite the complaint to the contrary, the ordinance was a product of a great deal of deliberation, debate, analysis, and careful review by the board members and our solicitor," he wrote in an e-mail.

Teal, 76, won a preliminary round when a judge rejected the township's move to have the case dismissed. The township filed an answer to Teal's complaint last Monday, and Teal has 20 days to file a response.

The ordinance at the heart of the dispute includes provisions for protections in housing, commercial property, employment, and public accommodations against discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression; it makes Haverford one of 23 Pennsylvania municipalities offering such a law.

Teal said he thought the ordinance's definitions of gender identity and gender expression were unclear. He feared it could affect business owners because the language appeared to make it employers' responsibility to prove there was no discrimination.

"Businessmen are in business for the money, not for social issues," Teal said. "The businessman now has to protect himself and accommodate for it."

The ordinance defines gender identity as "the gender(s), or lack thereof, a person self-identifies as, whether or not based on biological fact or sexual orientation."

Gender expression, the ordinance says, is how an individual communicates that identity, or how others perceive it through "appearance, behavior, or physical characteristics" that may or may not align with the biological sex and anatomy.

Liz Bradbury, executive director of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights advocacy group Pennsylvania Diversity Network, said nondiscrimination laws covering gender identity and expression had existed since 1975.

Bradbury said human-relations commissions help advise employers on the best business practices in accordance with such laws and mediate cases before they go to trial. A human-relations commission was included in the township ordinance.

In Haverford, the ordinance was first discussed at an October 2010 Board of Commissioners meeting. The vote in February was taken after board members heard opinions from both sides, including opposition from the conservative American Family Association.

"Increasingly, we see homosexual activists approach 'friendly' local elected officials to pull their victim card and cry discrimination even though no stories of real discrimination exist," Diane Gramley, president of the Pennsylvania chapter of the association, said in January as the issue was being debated. "Too many times the facts and real-world consequences are ignored simply so homosexuals can further their efforts to use the force of law to demand that all Pennsylvanians celebrate their lifestyle."

On the other side of the issue was Havertown resident Lou Devecchis, 50, who asked board members to extend protection from discrimination to LGBT residents.

Devecchis became active after a dispute with a neighbor. After discovering Devecchis was gay, the neighbor quickly told other neighbors. In late summer 2010, Devecchis heard the neighbor fight with his friend Dave Shepley. The neighbor then shouted gay epithets from the street.

Devecchis, who was sitting on his porch, immediately called police.

"The officer was empathetic, something that I take quite personal, but he said he unfortunately could not write up the incident as a hate crime and could only write it up as a neighborly dispute," Devecchis said.

At the board meeting, Devecchis pointed out that neighboring townships such as Lower Merion had enacted similar legislation.

"I became the accidental activist," he said and laughed. "I didn't see anybody standing up [for these protections], and not having them is demeaning to who you are."

Devecchis said he was confident the ordinance would be unaffected by the recent court challenge.

Teal said he planned to see the court battle through to the end, to the dismay of some residents.

"I understand that the antidiscrimination ordinance is an emotionally charged issue," resident Carla Carick wrote in an e-mail. "What I find more challenging, however, are the efforts to legitimize campaigns of hatred, fear, and misinformation."

Carick moved to Havertown with her partner, Laurie Koehler, and their son in June 2010 for new job opportunities. Carick, who has 20 years of teaching and education administration experience, told her fellow residents and township officials about bigotry at the Feb. 14 meeting.

She talked about the discrimination she and Koehler had experienced, including hurdles over housing, hospital visitation rights for their son, and the freedom for Carick to disclose her home life at work.

Carick said she was elated when she heard the ordinance had been approved.

"I was hopeful the commissioners would take a stance against intolerance," she said. "We purchased our home here. We're surrounded by good neighbors and friends and we're glad we did it."

Holmes said he regretted the controversy arising from the complaint.

"The question posed by our detractors to us may be, 'Why did we pass this?' " he said. "I look forward to the day when the question by society to others will be, 'What took the rest of you so long?' "

Contact Josh Fernandez at jfernandez@phillynews.com.

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