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Commissioners Receptive to Appeals for Human Relations Commission in Cheltenham and Agree to Start Drafting Ordinance

CHS student Ari Flaks speaking about his family's experience of prejudice

The Board of Commissioners attended to their mostly routine business Wednesday evening, but it was as if the written agenda reflecting the normal turning of the wheels of goverment was hardly more than the prelude for something else. That something else was – once again – the voices of citizens.

First they heard from Shoemaker Road residents in Elkins Park who were victims of the recent flooding plead with the township to take definitive action. (More on this soon.) Afterward, seats were still filled with the agenda long over, but the commissioners seemed fully transformed from principal actors to attentive audience.

A string of speakers stepped to the microphone in what was a memorable collective appeal to establish a human relations commission in Cheltenham, one that protects against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation as well as race, religion, ethnicity and age.

Twenty-two other municipalities in the state have established similar institutions, said the advocates, including Springfield, Haverford and Lower Merion.

Josh Kershenbaum from Elkins Park kicked things off: “The need for this ordinance stems from a simple principle: Discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations based on actual or perceived sexual orientation is wrong, and must not be allowed in Cheltenham.” He explained that neither state nor federal law protects against sexual orientation but do so on the basis of race, religion and ability. Kershenbaum asserted that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation “is un-American, and it should be unlawful in a free society.”

“While there is no price tag on liberty,” he continued, “the ordinance we propose is virtually cost-zero. The local Human Relations Commission it would create would be staffed by volunteers, who would be trained for free by the state Human Relations Commission. . . In short, there will be no need to break the bank or reinvent the wheel.”

Kershenbaum also pointed to the tradition of equality and human rights long a part of Cheltenham. “Our village of LaMott was one of the first and only neighborhoods in 19th century America to embrace racially integrated living. Back then, the notion of whites and blacks purchasing land side by side and living in an integrated neighborhood was unheard of. But today, we can look back proudly and say that Cheltenham stood on the right side of history.”

Thirty-five residents submitted to the commissioners a written pledge to volunteer “our time and efforts to sit on a human relations commission designed to protect your constituents from discrimination. But we can not serve our community unless you do. . . The stakes are high. The economy and redistricting are changing the face of PA. Our township must be viable on all levels in order to thrive and grow. Creating a safe community for all people is critical in order to safeguard our residents and our future,” said the pledge.

Rabbi Kevin Klineman of Congregation Keneseth Israel at the microphone

Rabbi Kevin Klineman of Congregation Keneseth Israel said, “In a few weeks we’ll read from the beginning of the Book of Genesis a passage that says all people were created in God’s image. This doesn’t discriminate between gender, between race, between religion, between sexual orientation or gender identity. In fact, those are basic principles of Judaism, Christianity and Islam . . . And as such, it is to each person equal spiritual, political, and economic opportunities . . . There is no reason that one’s sexual orientation, perceived or actual, or their gender identity should prohibit them from basic civil liberties such as the ability to have a job, have housing and stay at public accommodations. So I would urge you to take this as an ethical – and on behalf of our congregation and others – a religious pursuit as well.”

Myra Taksa, a 30-year resident, spoke of her son, who graduated from Cheltenham High School (CHS). “Unfortunately, he would not be a welcome citizen here in Cheltenham. His ability to hold a job, to be hired – he could be fired at will, he could be denied housing, he could be refused public accommodations simply because – among other characteristics, he has brown eyes and dark hair and he is gay. The brown eyes and dark hair wouldn’t affect anything but the fact that he is gay would. I can’t talk about this without getting extremely emotional . . . There is discrimination against him and others like him. Because they are lesbians, gays, bisexual or transgender, they are treated differently in Cheltenham Township than my husband and I are.

“I’d love to see us be known for being leaders in equality, to show that we value all our citizens. It is almost 2012. I grew up in an era in the ’50’s and early ’60’s when restricted communities were legal. It was legal to discriminate based on race and religion and gender where my parents could absolutely legally be refused housing, where my African-American friends’ families could be refused housing. Who could think that in nearly 2012 that this is happening – could happen right here in Cheltenham? So as much as I would love for my son to work here, to set up home here, I would be insane to ask him to do so because he doesn’t have the same rights that we do.”

Tasky’s son, Ben Salvina, who lives in Philadelphia, said, “I regularly visit my parents and when I cross the boundary line between Philadelphia and Cheltenham while riding the SEPTA train, I forfeit my civil rights to be treated equally in public accommodations, housing and employment. I am reluctant to take up residence in Cheltenham or to patronize Cheltenham’s businesses because Cheltenham does not afford me the same protections that exist in Philadelphia and 21 other municipalities . . . I ask this commission to pass an anti-discrimination ordinance protecting against invidious discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity or expression. Please allow me to feel welcome again in my home.”

Ari Flaks, a junior at CHS, talked about his family moving to Cheltenham for its social diversity, schools and progressive outlook. “At my high school,” he said, “the word ‘gay’ is an insult hurled daily at vulnerable kids. Based on my high school experience, I’m sad, but not surprised, by the growing incidents of gay teen suicide in our country. We are fortunate that such a tragedy has not happened in Cheltenham Township. But we must remember that each of the communities where these tragic events did occur were equally confident that they didn’t have a problem. Until they did.

“My most vivid memory of anti-gay harassment in Cheltenham,” said Flaks, “occurred when I was 10 years old and my brother was 7. It’s ironic that the incident occurred literally in front of some the very commissioners who are now deciding whether to extend basic civil rights to our LGBT residents. My dads had taken my brother and me to a Public Affairs meeting of the Cheltenham Township commissioners. My dad was publicly addressing the commissioners about an issue of anti-gay and anti-atheist discrimination in the use of Township property. As he was making his points, he was shouted down by others who opposed what he was saying.

The crowd at Curtis Hall

“The meeting itself seemed out of control, but the time right after the meeting is what I remember most. Several men surrounded my dad and continued to berate him. Then one yelled, right in front of my little brother and me, “you better hope your house doesn’t burn down tonight.” Shaken and afraid for our safety, I remember being hurried to our car accompanied by a family friend who was a police officer.

“I wish we had no discrimination in Cheltenham Township but I know from my own experience that we do. Still, it really doesn’t matter whether there has been a single incident of prejudice here. We have an opportunity right now to say that we value every one of our residents regardless of his or her race, ethnicity, age, religion, and yes, sexual orientation or gender identity.”

“The NAACP wholeheartedly supports the creation of a local human relations commission and an anti-discrimination ordinance,” said David Scott, Second Vice President of the Cheltenham Area branch of the NAACP. That ordinance should support the civil rights of all people including protected classes, lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender individuals. The NAACP mission for 102 years has been to achieve equality of rights and eliminate prejudice among people in the United States. We must ensure that the issues are addressed and civil rights protected for all people.”

David Scott speaking for the Cheltenham Area Branch of the NAACP

The pastor of the Glenside United Church of Christ, Beth Lyon, told the commissioners “As an open and affirming congregation, it is our wish that you would take this step to ensure that none of the citizens of this township are discriminated against.”

Sheva Golkow of Glenside said, “Earlier this evening we all stood and recited the pledge of allegiance and I have to tell you, I get a little uncomfortable when we get to that last line – ‘for liberty and justice for all.’ Because if you can’t live where you want to live or work where you want to work, that’s really not liberty. Or if you can be fired from your job or thrown out of your apartment, or refused service, that’s not really justice, not to me. I’m an optimist. I do believe that in my lifetime, this country will take the leap and bring full equality and full recognition to the LGBT community. . . But while we’re waiting for that moment, while we’re working toward it – and certainly yesterday we took a big leap with the repeal of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ – while we wait for other measures nationwide, I really want to see my township – where I live – Cheltenham and Glenside – I want to see that recognition and that acknowledgment that we are truly all equal and that we can truly have liberty and justice for all.”

Adah Bush, of Elkins Park, said, “Studies have shown that diversity attracts more businesses. And we’re always talking about how high our taxes are because we don’t have a high business tax base here. I think that by showing that this progressive little community that has been in the forefront of a lot of different movements . . . we can attract more people. Studies have shown that young people after they graduate want to live in a diverse community . . . Come to Cheltenham. They want to find jobs in places that are more diverse. I would really like the commissioners to consider the fact that not only is it a good thing to do, but that it also makes really good business sense.”

Adah Bush and Sheri Reed at the lectern

Board President Harvey Portner emphasized that the commissioners are “clued in” to the issues raised and have read the human relations commission/anti-discrimination ordinances of Springfield, Lower Merion and Upper Dublin and commented on them in emails. He said that the next step is for them to sit down with the township manager and come to a decision on which of the ordinances may be the best model for Cheltenham and then draft one “which will be acceptable to everyone.” After the ordinance is written, it would be brought before the Public Affairs Committee for discussion and recommendation and then before the Board of Commissioners for final action. Portner said he anticipates a time frame of between 30 to 90 days.

In response to a question about the duration of the legislative process, Public Affairs Committee Chair Charlie McKeown explained, “It’s hard to give an exact day – there’s so much that comes before us – but it’s something we are going to work on. It’s not something that’s going to be avoided and pushed aside.” Ward Five Commissioner Michael Swavola then made a motion to get the process underway by reviewing the various local ordinances and drafting a proposal. The motion carried unanimously.

Ward Four Commissioner Kathy Hampton thanked Cheltenham Area Residents for Equality (CARE) for its leadership in taking the issue to the board and said that as the only “vocal” board member on the question of discrimination on the basis of sexual preferences, she appreciated everyone’s testimony.

“There’s no question in my mind that the civility of everyone here was outstanding,” concluded Portner, “and it’s appreciated by this board. Sometimes we get people who hoot and holler, who point their finger at us because we’re bad people. But the bottom-line is when it’s done in an appropriate manner as we heard this evening, and it makes sense and it’s logical, I can only say thank you on behalf of the board for all of you attending and for your civility.”

According to CARE activist David Flaks, “The commissioners made a promise to pass a Cheltenham Human Relations Commission. Now is the time to make sure that it has teeth, that it is meaningful in giving a right and a remedy that is in the best interests of the township.” According to a post on CARE’s website by late Wednesday night, the speakers “left our commissioners with no choice but to support a Cheltenham Township Human Relations Commission, and they promised to do so. . . CARE will closely monitor the progress of this legislation and will keep you posted.”

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  1. Cakky Evans

    Correction: Abington Township has NOT passed a non-discrimination ordinance and still stands as Pennsylvania’s first suburban municipality to vote against one last January. The Board of Commissioners are continuing to work a revised ordinance and have since passed a proclamation urging the PA Legislature to pass HB 300 which would prohibit such discrimination throughout the Commonwealth.

    • Steve

      Thanks. Change made.