PA’s Dueling Marriage Equality and Gay Marriage Ban Bills

Logo of Freedomt to Marry, Inc.

“working to win the freedom to marry in more states, grow the national majority for marriage, and end federal marriage discrimination. ” http://www.freedomtomarry.org/pages/about-us

On April 15, Pennsylvania State Representative Mark Cohen (D-102 Philadelphia) introduced legislation (HB 1178) that would legalize civil unions and extend all state laws applicable to marriage to any civil union created anywhere and to any marriage performed and recognized outside of the state.  Less than one month later, on May 7, Pennsylvania State Representative Daryl Metcalfe (R-12 Butler County) introduced his legislation (HB 1349) to create a constitutional amendment defining marriage OR its “substantial equivalent” solely as a union between a man and a woman.

So we once again have a legislative dual going on in Pennsylvania between those that believe in equality for all and those that want to enshrine discrimination into the state Constitution.

Side 1: For Equality

What does Cohen’s bill do?  Very simply, it takes us on the path toward equality for lesbian and gays.  As Rep. Cohen says,

 “This bill would define a civil union as a union between two members of the same sex.  It would make all state laws applicable to marriage also applicable to a civil union.  The bill would also provide for reciprocity of civil unions performed legally in other states and the recognition of same sex marriage in other states as civil unions in Pennsylvania.”

Civil unions represent the middle-of-the-road compromise position between constitutionally banning and permitting gay marriages and have been embraced by both advocates for LGBT rights and a growing number of conservatives.

Nothing in this bill would require any religion or any clergyman to perform any ceremony uniting people in a civil union.  This legislation will merely offer committed gay couples the same legal rights that are bestowed upon married people without the status of marriage.”

I would prefer full marriage equality.  Just like all gay and straight couples in 10 states (plus Minnesota and Delaware if their legislatures pass their marriage equality bills as expected) already have.  And  just like the majority of people in Pennsylvania desire.

In a poll released on May 8 by Franklin and Marshal University, 54% of Pennsylvanians “generally” support while 41% “generally” oppose legalizing same-sex marriage.  In that same poll, 65% support passage of a state law that would allow same-sex couples to legally form civil unions that give them some, if not all, of the marriage rights given to heterosexual couples who marry.

This bill is a compromise.  It currently has 28 cosponsors and was referred to the House Judiciary Committee when it was introduced on April 15.

Side 2: For Discrimination

Meanwhile, Daryl Metcalfe has seen fit to once again try to enshrine discrimination into the state constitution.  It is a one-sentence amendment that has severe ramifications.  Here’s the constitutional amendment as written in HB 1349:

“Marriage is the legal union of only one man and one woman as husband and wife and no other legal union that is treated as marriage or the substantial equivalent thereof shall be valid or recognized.”

Metcalfe justifies this discrimination by invoking partisan politics, a right-wing encroachment on the separation of church and state, and a denial of the protections given to us under the US Constitution:

Pennsylvania does not need to wait for the United States Supreme Court to rule on what natural law already declares as self-evident … Marriage is a sacred bond that can only be fulfilled by one man and one woman, as established by God. Final passage of my legislation will allow state lawmakers to exercise their rightful responsibility and obligation to uphold the rule of law and the will of the people.

The definition of marriage as ‘the union of one man and one woman,’ defended and upheld by this legislation, is the traditional definition of marriage that has been recognized and accepted throughout history and the world for centuries. Neither homosexual special interests gathered under the immoral umbrella of the ACLU, nor the Obama administration’s Department of Justice or any activist court should decide this critical issue for our Commonwealth.  House Bill 1349 is specifically written to empower Pennsylvania voters, and only Pennsylvania voters, with the authority to decide how marriage will be defined in the Keystone State.

News reports indicate that Metcalfe may be on the downside of this battle and that combined with the aforementioned Franklin and March poll, there is now less support for this discrimination.  According to the Philly Magazine,

His support system is fleeting. In the last session, the bill had 40 supporters, but today [May 8], according to a rep from [Rep] Brian Sims’ office, there are only 27. And this is the first time it’s been introduced with zero Democratic backers. To top it off, his bill’s lackluster show of support comes on the heels of yesterday’s announcement that a record number of legislators on both sides of the fence sponsor[ed] legislation that ban[s] discrimination against LGBT people in the workplace and housing and public accommodations [emphasis in original].

Discrimination and inequality are not the principles Pennsylvania was founded upon.

Discrimination and inequality are not the principles this state was founded upon. Metcalfe’s discriminatory amendment, in contrast to Cohen’s call for equality and respect for recognizing loving relationships, denies unmarried heterosexual, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender families the protections and fairness they deserve.

Heterosexual married couples and their families are afforded more than 1,000 legal protections and economic benefits provided through state and federal law, benefits and protections that are currently inaccessible to unmarried couples.  Passage of Metcalfe’s amendment would therefore subject same-sex couples and their families to exclusion, discrimination and inequality.

Gay and lesbian Pennsylvanians are our neighbors, co-workers, friends, and family member.  They pay taxes.  LGBT people should not be bullied.  They deserve the same rights, protections, and responsibilities that all residents desire and have.

If the US Supreme Court declares this summer that marriage is a right across the country just like they did in Loving v. Virginia in 1967 (see my earlier blogs here and here on this issue) then we won’t need this interim step of civil unions and Metcalfe’s bill will immediately become moot.  A great way, in my opinion to end this duel.  In Pennsylvania and across the country.

So, let’s hope that the US Supreme Court overturns Proposition 8 this summer under the equal protection and due process protections given to us under the US Constitution’s 14th amendment and therefore—like Loving v. Commonwealth of Virginia in 1967—protect marriage rights for everyone. If they stop short of that, then let’s hope and advocate for the passage of Representative Cohen’s civil union bill.

Meanwhile, to keep up-to-date on these dueling bills as well as other LGBTQ legislation, check out Equality Pennsylvania’s website.

Voting Rights for Felons and Ex-Cons

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Voting Rights for Felons and Ex-Cons

Yesterday, a friend of mine called me.  She said that she had been talking to a woman whose partner had a felony record who had served his time for the crime.  Among the several issues they discussed was his frustration that he was no longer able to vote.  Like many people, my friend and the couple she was talking to me about all believe that once someone has been found guilty of a felony, they face a lifetime ban on their constitutional right to vote.

Since primary season is coming up in many places around the country and since most states have voter registration deadlines before their primary election day, I thought I’d provide some background information on this issue.

What is the myth?

Simply stated, the myth is that ex-cons cannot vote – once convicted and forever afterwards. There are at least two errors in this myth:

  • Except for a narrow category of crimes in Mississippi, disenfranchisement does not occur in any state if you are found guilty of a misdemeanor crime.  Even if you spend time in jail for that misdemeanor.
  • Voter disenfranchisement for people with a felony conviction differs by state.  Eleven states permanently disenfranchise some or all current and former felons from voting, but most don’t.

So it all depends on where you live. Here’s what I found out about state laws on this issue from the Brennan Center for Justice

Permanent Disenfranchisement for All Felons

Only four states – Iowa, Florida, Kentucky, and Virginia – permanently disenfranchise current and former felons from voting.  The only way for a person to have their voting rights reinstated is through an “individual rights restoration” process set up by each state.

Permanent Disenfranchisement for Some but Not All Felons

Seven states permanently disenfranchise some, but not all current and former felons from voting.

In Arizona, if someone is convicted of two or more felonies, the right to vote is permanently denied.

In the other six states in this category, you need to check your state law to determine which felony convictions permanently deny you the right to vote. Here’s a quick summary of these laws.

  • In Alabama, you can be permanently barred from voting if your crime is listed in their disenfranchisement list. If the conviction is a “moral turpitude” type of conviction, you can have your voting rights restored upon completion of your sentence and payment of fines and fees.
  • In Delaware, voting after incarceration can be reinstated five years post-incarceration unless the crime you committed is one among a list of crimes that permanently disenfranchises your right to vote.
  • In Mississippi, you permanently lose your right to vote if you are convicted of any of ten categories of crime, whether that crime is a felony or misdemeanor.  If your crime isn’t on this list, you can vote even while incarcerated.  Note, this is the only state that has a law that permanently bans voting for someone who has created a misdemeanor.
  • In Nevada, if someone is convicted of two or more felonies, the right to vote is permanently denied.  People convicted of violent crimes at any time are permanently barred from voting. Nevada will restore those rights if a pardon is granted or if the court where the conviction originally occurred restores those rights.
  • In Tennessee, if your crime is on the list of crimes that permanently bar you from voting, then you can only have these rights reinstated if you are pardoned.  For all other crimes, you can have your voting rights restored upon completion of your sentence, payment of fines and fees, and show that you are up to date on all child support payments.
  • In Wyoming, you can have your voting rights restored five years post-incarceration for first-time non-violent crimes.  All others are permanently disenfranchised unless pardoned by the Governor.

Voting Rights Restored Upon Completion of Incarceration, Probation, and Parole

Nineteen states – Alaska, Arkansas, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, Washington, West Virginia, and Wisconsin – restore your rights to vote upon completion of your sentence, which includes incarceration, probation, and parole.

In Nebraska, one additionally has to wait two years after completing the sentence before being allowed to vote.

In Washington state, you can lose your right to vote again if you haven’t paid your financial obligations after completing your sentence.

Voting Rights Restored After Incarceration and/or Probation

Five states – California, Colorado, Connecticut, New York, and South Dakota – allow you to vote once you have completed your sentence and/or probation.

In New York, those on probation can have their voting rights restored if they receive either a “Certificate of Relief from Disabilities or a Certificate of Good Conduct.”

Voting Rights Immediately Restored After Incarceration

Fifteen states – the District of Columbia, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Utah – immediately restore voting rights upon one’s release from jail or prison. There are no voting restrictions for people on parole or serving probation time.

No Restrictions on Voting for People with a Criminal Record

And just two states – Maine and Vermont – allow anyone otherwise eligible to vote regardless of criminal conviction to vote. Even while incarcerated, on probation, or parole.

Who is most likely to be impacted by this disenfranchisement?

According to the ACLU, people and communities of color are most often disparately impacted by felony disenfranchisement laws. There are over 5.3 million people in the United States that are barred from voting due to a criminal conviction.  The majority of these crimes are non-violent.

Of the 5.3 million disenfranchised, 1.4 million or 26 percent of people with a criminal conviction are African-American citizens.  Considering that black persons make up just 13 percent of the national population, one can immediately see that if you are Black, you are twice as likely to have your voting rights denied.  This means that one in 13 African-Americans across the country are being denied their right to vote.

The myth of an ex-con never being allowed to vote compounds this issue. As previously stated, many believe that once convicted, they can never vote again.

With a widespread belief in this myth as well as a lack of public education to refute it, more and more ex-cons are at risk of not regaining their right to vote. Since actual disenfranchisement disparately impacts people of color, this assumption exacerbates this form of discrimination.

In my opinion, little is done by the government, courts, and communities to educate people and communities about their voting rights when one has been sentenced for a crime.  Exceptions to this come from only a few, non-profit advocacy sources, including the ACLU, the Brennan Center for Justice, the Prison Policy Initiative, and the Sentencing Project.   There are others, but I believe that these four contain the best resources.

What do you need to do to get registered?

If your state is one of the states that do not permanently disenfranchise people who have completed their sentence (or if you live in Maine or Vermont which has no felony restrictions on voting), you should check out what your state law is regarding registering to vote.  The federal government has a website that has basic information on how to register and what the registration deadlines are by state.  It also has links to every state’s election office website where you can get details about state-specific requirements for voter eligibility.

If you know or believe that you have the right to vote in your state despite having a criminal history and receive a denial to vote when you attempt to register, you should check with an organization that provides legal services to people who have been incarcerated.  You can find a listing of these organizations by state here.  If your state isn’t listed, then the Prison Policy Initiative suggests that you contact one of the national groups that provide voter disenfranchisement assistance.

Once you get registered, GO VOTE!  It’s your right.

Paycheck Fairness Act and the ERA

Yesterday, a reporter from the local newspaper contacted me regarding a press conference that was held by Senator Robert Casey, Jr. (D-PA). During that press conference, Senator Casey discussed a report highlighting the fact that women in Pennsylvania earn 18.3 percent less than their male peers.

This earning differential is known as the Pay or Wage Gap.  The commonly used measure to determine the wage gap is the ratio of women’s to men’s median annual earnings for full-time, full-year workers.  Nationally, in 2011, women earned just 77 percent of what men earned.  That’s a national wage gap of 23 percent.  Although Pennsylvania appears to be doing better than the nation on pay equity, we are still being short-changed.

For women of color, the wage gap is even worse.  According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, Asian American women have the smallest wage gap, earning 91 percent of what the average white man earned in 2010. White women are next, earning approximately 81 percent of white men’s average income. African-American women (70 percent) and Hispanic women (60 percent) have the largest wage gaps as compared to white men.

So why did Jessica VanderKolk call me for a comment about Senator Casey’s press conference? The message she left on the phone was that she was interested in what I thought of Casey’s stance on pay inequity, partly as a follow-up to an article she did on this issue in May 2012, where I was also quoted.  She wanted to know why I thought there had been almost no change in wage gap in the last year and what I thought needed to happen in order to eliminate this problem.

My first statement to her was that pay inequity is unfair and unjust.  She quoted me in the news article this morning,

“It takes just as much to feed a woman’s family as a man’s family and put a roof over your head,” Tosti-Vasey said. “Gender should have no basis [in determining] your salary.”

We then went on to discuss the main point of Senator Casey’s press conference: his support and co-sponsorship of the Paycheck Fairness Act.  This bill was introduced again for the fourth time on January 23, 2013 (Casey signed on as a co-sponsor on January 30, 2013 right after announcing his support of S.R. 84).

The Paycheck Fairness Act updates and strengthens the Equal Pay Act of 1963. It gives women the tools they need to challenge the wage gap itself.  According to the ACLU, both S.R. 84 and H.R. 377 include the following remedies and programs to help remove pay inequity:

  • Require employers to demonstrate that wage differentials between men and women holding the same position and doing the same work stem from factors other than sex.
  • Prohibit retaliation against workers who inquire about their employers’ wage practices or disclose their own wages.
  • Permit reasonable comparisons between employees within clearly defined geographical areas to determine fair wages.
  • Strengthen penalties for equal pay violations. The bill’s measured approach levels the playing field by ensuring that women can obtain the same remedies as those subject to discrimination on the basis of race or national origin.
  • Encourage proactive enforcement of equal pay laws by re-instating the collection of wage-related data and providing for training for the workers who enforce our equal pay laws.
  • Modernize the Equal Pay Act to make it more in line with the class action procedures available under Title VII. It would not extend class action protections beyond what is available under other anti-discrimination laws.
  • provide important safeguards for businesses, including:
    • providing an exemption for small businesses;
    • instituting a six months waiting period from the time of enactment and requiring the Department of Labor to assist small businesses with compliance; and
    • Recognizing employers for excellence in their pay practices and strengthening federal outreach and assistance to all businesses to help improve equal pay practices.

Yet if people in general understand that paying someone less for doing the same job is unfair, why is this bill now in its fourth iteration? I was asked this question by Jessica Vandervolk during our phone call.  She paraphrased my comment, stating that Senator Casey and I agree on this issue:

[Tosti-Vasey] said the lack of action so far may have to do with the conservative climate, and Casey added that he hopes the 2012 election makes a difference.

The paraphrase is accurate, but somewhat incomplete.  I said that I believed that the lack of passage was mostly due to conservative legislators.  I continued by stating that this is particularly true in the US House of Representatives but also occurs among conservatives in the US Senate.  Why?  Just follow the campaign money.  These legislators listen to lobbyists and business honchos who want full control over how much they pay others. If employers can get away with paying less and discriminating against one segment of their workforce, then they will lobby and work to defeat any effort to change this scenario.  When elected officials’ campaign war-chests depend upon funds from uncaring, well-financed business owners and lobbyists, they vote no.

So I agree with Casey.  We have a slightly more caring House and Senate as a result of the November election and maybe we can get the Paycheck Fairness Act to become law during this session of Congress.  As constituents, let all of your legislators–both Senators and your US Representative—know that you want them to cosponsor (if they are not already a sponsor) and vote for the Paycheck Fairness Act as soon as possible.

You can find out where your representatives stand on the Paycheck Fairness Act by going to http://thomas.loc.gov/home/thomas.php. In the search box in the middle of the page, type in “Paycheck Fairness Act” and click search.  On the next page, 2 bills will show up—SR 84 and HR 377.  If you then click on “cosponsors” for each bill, you can determine if your representatives are publicly supporting the bill or not.

Meanwhile this might never have come up as an issue to fight in Congress OVER and OVER and OVER again if the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) had been ratified by 38 states and was now part of the US Constitution.  I recently blogged about why having an ERA is important, so check that out as well.  Once you have done that, go to the White House petition site and tell President Obama that you want him to work with Congress to finally get the ERA ratified.