The Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission (PHRC) has clarified and expanded the rules that prohibit discrimination in employment, education, housing, commercial property, and public accommodations. The PHRC has defined a number of “protected classes” under the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act (PHRA) and the Pennsylvania Fair Educational Opportunities Act (PFEOA). In doing so, the PHRC protects against discrimination based on things like gender identity and expression, sexual preference, racial or ethnic characteristic (such as hair style or clothing), pregnancy, breastfeeding, and religious practices. These rules were effective on August 16, 2023.
I have previously written about how the definition of “gender” under the Fair Housing Act has been clarified to include sexual orientation and gender identity. In Pennsylvania, the PHRA and the PFEOA prohibit discrimination in housing (like the FHA), but also in employment, education and access to public places. Until the recent action by the PHRC, there had been no state protection against discrimination based on a person’s sexual preference or racial characteristics. Although the PHRA and PFEOA prohibit discrimination based on an individual’s “sex,” it never says what that means. This meant, for example, that a housing provider could prohibit same-sex couples from renting. Or a community association could ban transgender men from using the community pool. Or an employer could tell an employee that he or she could not keep their hair in dreadlocks or other racially or culturally preferred styles.
(As always, please forgive me if I do not use preferred nomenclature or descriptions for some of these sensitive topics. I want to help anyone who might not have a clear understanding of LGBTQ+ or certain race issues.)
The new PHRC rules give a lot of detail and clarity on what is protected. That means that the PHRC also has very specific directions when it comes to investigating complaints about discrimination in the workplace, housing, or education. Employers and housing providers need to understand the protected classes. This helps shield them from liability. But more importantly, it can be good tool to understand what is important – and what is discriminatory – to a wide range of people.