[author: Alaura Maglio]
Question: Does Whitewood v. Wolf Provide Any Protection from Sexual-Orientation Discrimination in Pennsylvania?
In Whitewood v. Wolf, a federal judge struck down a Pennsylvania law that limited the definition of marriage to that between “one man and one woman.” In his momentous opinion, Judge Jones also declared that classifications based on sexual orientation are subject to “intermediate scrutiny.” As a result, when a state or local law classifies people (i.e. discriminates) on the basis sexual orientation, the government must prove that this classification is substantially related to an important government purpose. This is quite a difficult standard to meet.
As this language indicates, to receive legal protection for discrimination, there must first be an applicable law. It is important to understand that unfair or discriminatory treatment, on its own, is probably not an illegal practice. For instance, we know that employers employees aged 40 or older are protected against being fired because of their age. However, this is not just because discrimination is a bad practice; it is because a federal law, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), prohibits such practice. Had Congress not passed the ADEA, there would be no law barring employers from firing employees based on their age, and such discrimination would not be illegal.
In sum, Whitewood only announced how rigorously a court must examine the purpose of an existing law. There is currently no statewide Pennsylvania law that protects against sexual orientation discrimination. Judge Jones did not create a law prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation (nor could he have done so).
There is, however, pending legislation in Pennsylvania that would provide some of these protections. Senate Bill 300 seeks to add “sexual orientation” and “gender identity or expression” to the protected categories under the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act (PHRA). If Senate Bill 300 were to pass, it would allow persons discriminated against in employment, housing or public accommodation because of their sexual orientation or gender identity or expression to seek redress under the PHRA. For example, if an employer fired an employee because of her sexual orientation, she could bring a claim to the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission (PHRC). If the former employee proved to the PHRC that she was terminated because of her sexual orientation, she could receive redress as provided by the Act. Such redress includes: compensation for loss of work, reinstatement to her former position, and an order to the employer to pay a civil fine. However, keep in mind that there is no law in Pennsylvania that regulates purely private conduct. Outside of employment, housing, or public accommodations, Senate Bill 300 would not protect against or provide remedies for discrimination.
In sum, Whitewood represents an important step toward providing increased protections to the LGBT community by requiring courts to closely examine potentially discriminatory laws. However, the court’s opinion does not provide recourse for discriminatory practices, and it also represents the conclusion of just one judge. Such protections can be provided at a state level by the passage of laws like Senate Bill 300.