Civil rights? Let your conscience be your guide

ASSOCIATED PRESS Georgia Supreme Court Justice David Nahmias joins hands with Georgia Rep. Sharon Beasley-Teague during a prayer ceremony paying tribute to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the Statehouse in Atlanta.
ASSOCIATED PRESS Georgia Supreme Court Justice David Nahmias joins hands with Georgia Rep. Sharon Beasley-Teague during a prayer ceremony paying tribute to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the Statehouse in Atlanta.
Posted: January 21, 2014

AND NOW, just in time for Martin Luther King Jr. Day, another bright idea from the Pennsylvania Legislature.

A 10-year-veteran Lancaster County lawmaker wants to amend the state Constitution to free us all from the burdens of anti-discrimination laws.

You could say he has a dream.

Republican Rep. Gordon Denlinger, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Fiscal Policy, an elder in the Zeltenreich Reformed Church of New Holland, Pa., is circulating a memo seeking co-sponsors for his effort.

"Specifically, I plan to propose a new section in Article I - the Pennsylvania 'bill of rights' - that will prohibit government from punishing an individual or entity if the individual or entity makes hiring or other employment decisions, or provides services, accommodations (including housing accommodations), advantages, facilities, goods or privileges based on sincerely held beliefs," the memo says.

Denlinger calls his proposal the "Freedom of Conscience Amendment."

In other words, those whose conscience suggests that they act contrary to nondiscriminatory statutes are free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, free at last to do so.

Under this proposal, employers, storeowners, realtors, motel managers, etc., could deny jobs, groceries, homes or rooms to anyone (tall, short, pregnant, Catholic, Jewish, gay, Goth, Democrat, newspaper columnist) offending their beliefs.

Just as long as such beliefs are "sincerely held."

Denlinger argues that William Penn established Pennsylvania as a "haven for those seeking freedom of conscience" and calls for vigilance in "protecting individual rights of conscience and those who live and act" accordingly.

In other words, the "rights of conscience" of some trump the civil rights of others.

Now, I'm gonna go ahead and suggest that Denlinger, a Bob Jones University grad, a CPA who worked for a grocery discounter and a manufacturer of baby furniture, is a good and decent man.

But wow.

His amendment means that one's beliefs - whatever they are - exempt one from laws against discrimination in employment, housing or public accommodation based on race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, gender, education or disability.

Plus, there's pending legislation to add sexual orientation and gender identity to that list, but I'm guessing that Denlinger already added them to his list.

Pittsburgh Democratic Rep. Dan Frankel, long active in civil-rights issues and sponsor of legislation to expand equality rights to the LGBT community, calls Denlinger's proposal "patently absurd."

Frankel notes that it countervails existing constitutional law and suggests that it's intended to circumvent momentum toward extension of rights that he and other lawmakers seek.

(Gov. Corbett has said he'd sign legislation outlawing discrimination for sexual orientation or gender identity.)

So where did the "Freedom of Conscience Amendment" come from?

Denlinger says he's introducing it because of his friendship with the Mennonite family that owns Conestoga Wood Specialties, a Lancaster County cabinetmaker.

The firm has a case pending before the U.S. Supreme Court challenging that part of Obamacare requiring employers to provide contraceptive options to employees under mandated health-care coverage.

But Denlinger concedes that his amendment would have impact far beyond issues of religion and birth control. And he says that questions regarding clashes with current law or constitutional rights can be settled in the courts.

It's ironic that Denlinger would invoke William Penn, an ardent advocate of tolerance and freedom from established religion.

Maybe that's why a spokesman for House leadership passed on an opportunity to comment on Denlinger's amendment.

After all, there's not much one can offer on threats to social justice that hasn't been offered before.

For example: "We must all learn to live together as brothers or we will all perish together as fools." - Martin Luther King Jr.


Email: baerj@phillynews.com

Blog: ph.ly/BaerGrowls

Columns: ph.ly/JohnBaer

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