Thursday, October 22, 2009

Is that the Hallelujah Chorus I hear?

Yes, folks, we finally have a budget. Earlier this month – 101 days after it was supposed to be finished – the legislature passed a budget for the fiscal year we are already three and a half months into.

Aside from many, many agencies, schools, and organizations breathing a sigh of relief, what this also means is that the legislature can now get back to working on other things, including important bills on LGBT discrimination, capital punishment, and sex education.

A few to watch:

House Bill 300

If you follow Speaking Freely or get email updates from us, you know that we were working hard on this bill – which would ban discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodations on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity or expression – before the budget impasse. We’re ramping back up now that the legislature is back on track and we need YOU to help get this bill moving again!

Even if you’ve done it already, please take a moment to let your representatives in Harrisburg know that this is something that’s long past due in Pennsylvania. There’s something for you to do no matter how much spare time you have.

If you only have two minutes:
Email your representative. Please take a minute and a half of your two minutes to add a sentence or two to personalize the email – for example, you might briefly summarize the story of a loved one who this law will affect; mention that as a person of faith, you support treating all Pennsylvanians with dignity and respect; or state that as a business owner, this is important legislation for you as you work to recruit and diverse and competitive workforce.

If you have five minutes:
Give your representative’s office a call and say the same thing. You can find the number by using the ACLU’s Find Your Legislator tool. Making a call often augments your voice with lawmakers – it is louder both literally and figuratively! If you have never done this before, don’t worry. All you need to do is tell the staff member who answers your name and address, the bill number you are calling about (HB 300), that you’d like Representative X to support the bill, and why (the personal notes mentioned above or a fact or two from our talking points).

If you have fifteen minutes:
Think about business owners or religious leaders you know who may be willing to sign on as supporters of this bill. Write a brief email or take a few minutes to speak to them about the importance of this bill and let them know that they can help show the diversity of groups that support anti-discrimination legislation. Have them contact us at for more information about how they can help.

If you have half an hour:
Write a letter to the editor of your local newspaper. LTEs educate members of your community and are another way of making your voice heard with decisionmakers. You can see examples here or use our talking points for more ideas.

If you have an hour:
Visit your legislator! This is the most important way to make your voice heard with your lawmaker. Meetings can be held in-district (near your home) or in Harrisburg. Call your legislator’s office to schedule a visit. If you have never done a legislator visit before, contact for help.

Senate Bill 1110

This bill calls for a moratorium on executions while a comprehensive study of capital punishment in Pennsylvania is conducted. The study would include analyses of the death penalty’s impact on victims’ families, the potential for executing an innocent person, and the economic, geographical, and racial disparities present in the current system.

In 2007 the American Bar Association concluded that there is overwhelming evidence that the state’s death penalty system is flawed and that we are at risk of executing an innocent person. Among the problems with the death penalty are:

wrongful conviction – The most common causes of wrongful conviction are eyewitness error, government misconduct by the police and/or prosecution, mishandled evidence or the use of unqualified scientific “experts,” unreliable testimony from jailhouse snitches in exchange for a reduction in their sentences, and false confessions resulting from torture, mental illness, or mental retardation.

racial disparities69% of Pennsylvania’s death row inmates are racial or ethnic minorities, the second-highest death row minority rate in the country, and black defendants are more likely to be sentenced to death than white defendants, especially if the victim is white.

costs – Contrary to popular belief, it costs more to execute a prisoner than to house him or her for life. A new study released this week by the Death Penalty Information Center investigates other criminal justice needs that could use the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on capital punishment, including the need for 200 more police officers in Philadelphia.

deterrenceThe science is inconclusive at best on the deterrent effect of the death penalty. Meanwhile, a national survey of police chiefs from around the country found that police chiefs do not believe the death penalty significantly reduces the number of homicides.

For more information on the death penalty, go to or check out our previous blogs on the subject.

House Bills 1162 and 1163

After years of declining rates of teen pregnancies and teens contracting sexual transmitted diseases, those numbers are again on the rise. Why? Because the epic failure of abstinence-only-until-marriage education has come home to roost. Studies have shown that students who get abstinence-only sex ed don’t delay sexual activity and are less likely to use contraception than students who get comprehensive, science-based sex education.

The impact on public health is without question. Teen births cost the commonwealth more than $300 million per year.

House Bill 1163 (The Healthy Youth Act) would require all public schools that teach HIV prevention – which is all public schools in the state (although the bar for what qualifies as teaching prevention is low, e.g. “don’t have sex”) – to also teach comprehensive sex ed.

House Bill 1162 (The Notice Home Act) would require all schools that teach abstinence-only sex ed to send a notice home to parents informing them of the school’s sex ed curricula.

To learn more about this issue, visit the Pennsylvanians for Responsible Sex Education website.

Becca and Andy in Harrisburg

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Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Out in the Silence

This month the ACLU of PA has been working to bring "Out in the Silence," a film by Joe Wilson and Dean Hamer, to communities across the state. The film has won several awards (including the Audience Award at the Hardacre Film and Cinema Festival in the small town of Tipton, Iowa, and an Alternative Spirit Award at the Rhode Island International Film Festival), but having seen the film five times over the course of three weeks, I do not need to rely on these recommendations - I am somewhat of an expert myself.

By turns sad, funny, and infuriating, the film follows the lives of several current and former residents of Oil City, PA, a small Rust Belt town in western Pennsylvania. After Joe Wilson, a native of the town, decides to place an announcement of his wedding to Dean Hamer in his hometown newspaper, a flurry of nasty responses ensue. One day, however, he receives a letter from a mother in Oil City whose gay teen has been bullied so badly that she has had to withdraw him from school. Knowing of no other place to turn, she has resorted to writing to a man she just happened to see in the newspaper. Joe and Dean return to Oil City to document what is happening with this mother and her son (see page 16 of the ACLU's 2007 Legal Docket for information about the lawsuit they filed against the school district), as well as Joe's former neighbor and her same-sex partner who are working to open a business in town.

Among the films most notable points are the pain experienced by the teenage C.J., the conversations between filmmaker Joe and an evangelical pastor who wrote a letter to the newspaper condemning his wedding announcement, and the father of a teen in a neighboring community who talks about his transformation from someone who would physically assault gay people just for existing to his support of his son today.

If you have not had the opportunity to see "Out in the Silence" at our screenings in Lewisburg, York, Lititz, Harrisburg, or Titusville, you can watch it on WITF November 1, 2009, at 5:00 p.m. Upcoming showings are also planned for Pittsburgh, Erie, Sharon, Oil City, and Stroudsburg.

Want to bring "Out in the Silence" to your town? Contact the producers and your regional ACLU office for help!

Becca in Harrisburg

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