ACLU Week in Review

By Ben Bowens, Communications Associate, ACLU of Pennsylvania

17th annual picnic

July 13 – July 17

With the 4th of July in our rearview mirror, it’s time to look ahead to the next big event of the Summer – The 17th annual ACLU picnic in Pittsburgh! This year’s event promises to be the best yet as we take time to reflect on what an amazing year it has already been for civil liberties in Pennsylvania. Find more details about the picnic and check out some ACLU-involved stories from around the country below.

Department of Justice urged to look into SC shooting

ACLU, NAACP urge DOJ to investigate Walter Scott’s shooting death

The ACLU of South Carolina joined the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and over two dozen South Carolina leaders in urging the Department of Justice to open an investigation of the North Charleston Police Department to uncover any pattern or practice of racially discriminatory policing. The letter also requests that the DOJ open a criminal civil rights investigation into the shooting death of Walter Scott on April 4, 2015. read more…

KY County Clerk denies same sex-couple a marriage license

Federal judge hears arguments in ACLU same-sex marriage case

A federal judge on Monday heard arguments about a county clerk who is refusing to issue marriage licenses following the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling legalizing same-sex marriage. The American Civil Liberties Union sued Davis on behalf of two gay couples and two straight couples who were denied marriage licenses. The couples named in the suit are April Miller and Karen Roberts, Shantel Burke and Stephen Napier, Jody Fernandez and Kevin Holloway, and L. Aaron Skaggs and Barry W. Spartman. read more…

PA inmate denied the right to marry

Lawsuit Filed on Behalf of Inmate Denied Ability to Marry

The ACLU of Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania Institutional Law Project filed a lawsuit today on behalf of an inmate whose attempts to get married have been thwarted by both the Fayette County Register of Wills and the State Correctional Institute (SCI) in Fayette. read more…

Blocking NSA’s dragnet program

ACLU sues to block extension of NSA dragnet program

The temporary extension of the National Security Agency’s bulk phone records collection authority by the secretive court that oversees US government spying should be revoked, since a federal court ruled the program unconstitutional, according to the more…

ACLU-PA Greater Pittsburgh Chapter 17th Annual Picnic – THURSDAY, July 23th (Rain or Shine!)


Join us to celebrate a great summer and great people. We’ll provide beverages and grilling items (hamburgers, hot dogs, veggie burgers, etc.) We ask you to bring a side dish, snack, drink or dessert or, if cooking isn’t your thing, a $10 donation to help cover costs of food. (Kids five and under eat free.) Click here to RSVP and let us know that you’ll be coming and what you can bring.

Pennsylvania’s Anti-Discrimination Laws are in Need of a Makeover

By P. Griffin Sneath, Secretary, South Central Chapter of the ACLU of Pennsylvania

P. Griffin Sneath

P. Griffin Sneath

As a young American, I strive to get an education so that one day, I can work hard to earn a living and provide for my family. I value the opportunity to push myself forward with quality work performance, determination, and the right qualifications. But, because of the lack of protection for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Pennsylvanians in the current anti-discrimination laws, people like me face being fired for their gender identity or expression, or for who they love.

As the law currently stands, I could be denied a mortgage someday because of my sexual orientation. I could be denied a job I was best qualified for just because of who I love. It is possible that someday I could be denied care at a hospital because I married someone of the same sex. And, my transgender friends have to fear being evicted from their apartments someday–not for not paying their rent, but for their gender identity or expression.

As I prepare to apply for college this fall, I should be able to look upon my future without having to fear the setbacks that I could potentially face when I join the workforce. I should not worry about whether or not I will receive care when I am sick.

In a few years, I will make choices about where to live and to work. Pennsylvania is my home, and I believe I have plenty to give back to the commonwealth after I finish my higher education. But will I really want to live in this state knowing that everything I’ve worked for could be denied because the law doesn’t protect me from discrimination?

There are currently statewide anti-discrimination laws that protect many Pennsylvanians, but none explicitly list sexual orientation and gender identity or expression under their protections. Some municipalities do have LGBT protections, but these only cover 30% of Pennsylvania’s population. This oversight in statewide legislation makes it perfectly legal outside select municipalities to fire, refuse to hire, deny a mortgage or a lease, and deny other public accommodations and services for people just because they are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. I am confident that most business owners and employers will hire employees based on their characteristics that truly matter in the workplace–dedication, hard work, and quality performance–and not on an employee’s sexual orientation, or gender identity or expression. But, some will continue to only employ and serve Pennsylvanians who are protected by current anti-discrimination laws–that is, unless we modernize the laws to include LGBT people. It is time we find the middle ground by giving LGBT employees a chance to be held to the same standards as their straight counterparts under the law.

I believe that I should always treat others as they wish to be treated. I would like to see individuals judged for their work, and not for who they love or how they identify and express themselves. I believe it is time for the Pennsylvania legislature to update current anti-discrimination laws that protect Pennsylvanians to include those who are LGBT. I ask Pennsylvania to make sure that people like me have a chance at achieving the American Dream through hard work and dedication–just like everyone else.

In addition to his duties as Secretary for the South Central Chapter, Griffin has a high school internship with the ACLU of Pennsylvania’s Harrisburg office. He is also the son of Cyndi Sneath, ACLU-PA board member and one of the clients in the ACLU’s landmark Kitzmiller v. Dover case.

Viral Photo Highlights Need for Action In Support Of LGBT Youth

By Ian S. Thompson, ACLU Washington Legislative Office


“I’m homosexual and I’m afraid about what my future will be and that people won’t like me.”

Sadly, this quote didn’t come from a gay person several decades ago, during a time before most people realized that they had gay people they knew and loved in their lives. It isn’t even from several years ago. The quote is from a young boy, captured in a haunting photograph from Humans of New York with a look of pained anguish on his face, as if he is holding back a well of tears.

In the days since the image was first posted, it has received more than 620,000 “Likes” on Facebook and has been shared nearly 60,000 times. Responses, overwhelmingly positive, have poured in from individuals from across the world, including Ellen DeGeneres and Hillary Clinton.

This week, the U.S. Senate will be presented with a rare opportunity to act to ensure that LGBT students across the country are able to obtain a quality public education that is free of discrimination. Senator Al Franken (D-Minn.) will be offering the Student Non-Discrimination Act, or SNDA, as an amendment on the Senate floor. The need for these protections could not be clearer.

As moving as the response to this photo has been, the fears voiced by this boy are reflective of a tragic reality impacting far too many LGBT young people in schools across the country. Discrimination, harassment, and even physical violence continue to play far too large a role in the lives of LGBT students. A nationwide 2013 survey of nearly 8,000 students found that more than 30 percent of LGBT students reported missing at least one entire school day in the past month because they felt unsafe.

Too often, it is the schools themselves that are the problem. The ACLU and the ACLU of Virginia have filed a lawsuit, on behalf of a transgender student, against the Gloucester County School Board for adopting a discriminatory bathroom policy that segregates transgender students from their peers. The policy effectively expels trans students from communal restrooms and requires them to use “alternative private” restroom facilities.

SNDA, which is modeled closely on Title IX, would provide critical, explicit nondiscrimination protections for LGBT students in federal law. When schools discriminate against LGBT students — such as denying trans students access to restrooms that reflect who they are or barring students from bringing a same-sex date to a school dance — or allow instances of serious harassment to go unaddressed, SNDA provides important legal remedies, including a private right of action, to hold schools accountable.

Schools found to be in violation of the law would also risk losing their federal funding. A half century of civil rights laws have demonstrated that these kinds of enforcement tools are most effective in preventing discrimination from occurring in the first place as well as getting schools to appropriately respond when students are being discriminated against or harassed. At the end of the day, the goal is to create a safe and supportive learning environment for all students, not lawsuits (important and necessary as they sometimes are).

While we continue to celebrate a landmark Supreme Court victory for the freedom to marry, we cannot lose sight of all the important work that remains. It is mindboggling to think that there is still no federal law that explicitly protects LGBT students in our nation’s public schools. By supporting SNDA, senators would make clear that LGBT students should be able to look forward to futures full of promise, not live in fear over whether they will be accepted and loved for who they are.

This article is cross-posted at the ACLU’s Blog of Rights

Learn more about the ACLU of Pennsylvania’s LGBT Nondiscrimination work!

Happy Pride Season!

By Melissa Morris, Campaign Manager, Why Marriage Matters-PA

Melissa Moriss Pride

Melissa Morris marches in the Philadelphia Pride Parade (credit: Ben Bowens)

Pride has officially kicked off in a big way this month. In the past ten days, Pennsylvania’s largest cities held their pride events with record turnouts. I can’t say that the ACLU-PA winning marriage equality in the state was the catalyst for communities to show up and show out, but I don’t think it hurt.

In Philadelphia, the three main days of Pride kicked off with a large block party running straight through the blocked off streets of the gayborhood, where people danced and rode a shark in the middle of the street. Saturday was the 7th Annual Dyke March where hundreds of women took over the streets to stand for equality. Of course Pride wouldn’t be Pride without the annual Philadelphia Pride Parade and Festival, where 173 groups participated in marching and festival events. The parade was especially festive because 15 same-sex couples that were now legally able to get married, did just that right in front of Independence Mall! Events closed with the Village People headlining the festivities at Penn’s Landing, where it was standing room only.

Pittsburgh held four days of events starting with a splash pool party on Thursday and a pub crawl on Friday night, where over a dozen bars across the city welcomed partiers and got them around safely by providing shuttle services to each location. Pride in the Street is Pittsburgh’s big outdoor concert, headlined by the one and only Chaka Khan and followed by the group Magic. Sunday was the annual Pride March and Festival where over 100 groups marched and approximately 150 vendors and organizations shared community information and sold goods. (Pride in the Street celebrates the LGBT community – Melissa Morris featured in #Seen)

Hundreds of thousands have already come out to Prides throughout Pennsylvania and the festivities will continue throughout the summer. 2014 is already breaking numbers for Pride participation and we are looking forward to all the festivals yet to come.

MelissaMelissa Morris comes to the ACLU-PA with more than 15 years of experience as a program developer and trainer for community based organizations and within higher education. Prior to joining the ACLU-PA she was the founding Director of Diversity Initiatives at a private Pennsylvania college. Melissa has led programming in the areas of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) issues and awareness, diversity programming, domestic violence awareness and HIV/AIDS counseling.

Our Wildest Dreams

Julie Lobur and her wife Marla Cattermole, attend the #DecisionDayPA rally in Harrisburg (credit: Dani Fresh)

Julie Lobur and her wife Marla Cattermole (credit: Dani Fresh)

On July 9, 2013, Julie Lobur and her wife Marla Cattermole, along with 10 other same-sex couples, a widow, and two children of a same-sex couple, sued for the freedom to marry in Pennsylvania and for recognition of out-of-state marriages for same-sex couples. On May 20, 2014, they won. Read more about the lawsuit at

By Julie Lobur

I’ve simply been walking on air since Judge Jones’s decision nullifying Pennsylvania’s DOMA. Little in this world meant more to Marla and me than the legitimization of our relationship. For 28 years, we fought for marriage equality. We wrote checks, went to protests, and harangued anyone who would listen. On May 20, our dreams came true with seemingly surreal abruptness.

Until recently, many of us never thought we would see this day come in Pennsylvania. When I officially came out 41 years ago, it was still illegal to be gay in Pennsylvania (under penalty of 5 years in prison!). Of course, coming “out” in those days meant only identifying oneself to the gay community. The thought of public exposure of one’s sexual orientation terrified most of us.

In the 1970s, Harrisburg’s gay community was hidden underground. We lurked in the shadows equally fearful of the gay bashers and the police—sometimes one and the same. Closeted professionals who passed themselves off for straight lived in continual fear of blackmail. People who couldn’t “pass” for straight were grateful to be able to hang onto any job long enough to pay a few bills. We were relegated to gay ghettos where “respectable” people would never set foot. (Some of these same neighborhoods became chic gayborhoods where “respectable” people now pay a fortune to live.)

Julie Lobur and her wife Marla Cattermole, attend the #DecisionDayPA rally in Harrisburg (credit: Dani Fresh)

Julie Lobur and her wife Marla Cattermole, attend the #DecisionDayPA rally in Harrisburg (credit: Dani Fresh)

In hindsight, one might say that we were too quick to accept our second-class status. But mindsets are difficult to break. At our marriage ceremony decades later, I nearly had a panic attack when after saying our vows, the judge naturally instructed me to kiss Marla. My mind raced, “Gasp! Kiss Marla? In front of a judge??? Won’t I get in trouble? Is this a set up?” I somehow regained my composure before anyone noticed. That was when I fully realized how far we had come.

The life we have now is certainly beyond anything in my wildest dreams in 1973. It is a life that we are happy to see our young people take for granted. But I will be indebted to my dying day for all of the hard work, persistence, and bravery on the part of those who made it happen. Without the contributions of thousands of supporters and sympathetic friends, none of us would have seen justice. Every little bit helped.

On the Right Side of History: October 1, 1996

By Andy Hoover, Legislative Director, ACLU of Pennsylvania

Rainbow Flag

A rainbow flag is raised outside of city hall in Philadelphia. (credit: Ben Bowens)

At the suggestion of a colleague, I pulled up the General Assembly’s archives to look at the votes and the journals from the legislature’s passage of the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996.

After the events of the past week, it was quite a read. The state Senate passed DOMA on October 1, 1996, by a vote of 43-5. The five no votes are all names that are familiar to Pennsylvania politicos- Democrats Vincent Hughes, who is now the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee; Vincent Fumo, who retired several years ago after legal troubles; Hardy Williams, who passed in 2010 and whose son, Anthony, now serves in the Senate; Allyson Schwartz, who serves in Congress and ran for governor this year; and Republican Dave Heckler, who later became a judge and is now the district attorney of Bucks County.

Reading the floor debate, which is available here, is fascinating. Here are some choice quotes:

“Our country was founded on the principles of liberty and justice for all. It is our responsibility, in fact our obligation, as elected officials to assure a society that prohibits discrimination against any class of people. It is wrong to express words of tolerance and to condemn bigotry only when it is easy and safe, only when it is in the abstract. Well, today we are faced with a choice to condemn discrimination, to end a minority group’s isolation, and to build understanding. It should not be so hard. And I ask each of my colleagues not to waste this opportunity and instead to stand up for understanding, to stand up for acceptance, to stand up for fairness, and to vote against…this legislation.”
— Senator Allyson Schwartz


“I am of the belief that government has no place in the bedroom, and I do not know why we have to rush to judgment on this issue right now. I recognize it as an inflammatory issue, it is one that drives some people crazy, but my plea is that these people are human beings, too, and have the right to their beliefs and the exercise of their beliefs the same as the majority of people do. They present no threat to society. In fact, they complement society and assist society by being honest, law-abiding individuals.


“…I do not kid myself. I know the vote today will probably be overwhelming, the same way the vote in a southern legislature years ago would have been overwhelming in discriminating against black minorities. That does not make the vote right. It is still wrong. It is no business of ours to interfere in the lives of others, in the most private and intimate way, and it is shameful that we are doing this(.)”
–Senator Vincent Fumo

Six days later, on October 7, the House passed the bill with just 13 members voting no. We’ll have a follow up post to recognize those representatives.

On October 16, Governor Ridge signed the bill and it became Act 124 of 1996.

And on May 20, 2014, Pennsylvania’s Defense of Marriage Act was swept into the ash heap of history.

On #DecisionDayPA: A letter from Vic Walczak

Vic Walczak

Vic Walczak

Dear ACLU Supporter,

I have been blessed to be a part of some pretty historic cases, whether it’s intelligent design creationism, Hazleton’s immigration fiasco, or, most recently, knocking out voter ID. But our marriage case on behalf of 25 Pennsylvanians holds a special place for me.

I was at the Pittsburgh celebration on the night of the decision with several of our clients and their children when the magnitude of what we had achieved began to hit home. People I didn’t know were hugging me, wetting my suit with their tears as they thanked me for transforming their lives. I don’t ever recall seeing so much unabashed joy, open affection, and excitement created by one of our victories.

All ACLU cases involve vital rights, but it hit me just how life-defining this case is for so many people. It is everyday existence. This decision affirms people for who they are and establishes gay men and lesbians as equal citizens. Those who fall in love with a person of the same sex now have the same rights.

Who would have thought that in less than a year we would make Pennsylvania number 19 for freedom-to-marry states? It’s amazing and just plain beautiful!

The ACLU of Pennsylvania could not have achieved this win, or any of our other victories, without the help of our supporters.

If you’re not a member, please consider joining the ACLU today.

Thank you for your unwavering faith in the ACLU! Let there be more love in the world. And let wedding bells ring!


Witold ‘Vic’ Walczak, Esq.
Legal Director, ACLU of Pennsylvania

PS – What some of you may not know is that I’m a dancing legend. Bad dancing legend 🙂

Vic Walczak dancing

Vic dancing on stage at the #DecisionDayPA rally in Pittsburgh (credit: John Altdorfer)

Whitewood v. Wolf – A Case for the Freedom to Marry

By Ben Bowens & Molly Tack-Hooper, ACLU of Pennsylvania

We recommend viewing this Prezi presentation in full screen. After it loads, you can use your keyboard arrows to scroll through the presentation. At anytime, you can click and move around the presentation without altering any of the content.

For more information about the case and FAQs, please visit

Ruth Ellis – Everyday Hero

By Melissa Morris, Campaign Manager, Why Marriage Matters-PA



When I think about the breadth of blacks in this country and the difference so many have made, I’m not drawn to the typical civil rights leaders that we heard about in elementary school for black history month. I think about the everyday people who are making a difference to the average person without even realizing the ripple effect of greatness. I think about the quiet heroes like Ruth Ellis.

Ruth Ellis isn’t the typical choice you would see as far as Black History Month candidates go. Born in 1899, she didn’t have multiple degrees and she wasn’t known for being, “well-spoken.” But what she did have was a big heart that she opened to as many black LGBT people as she could during a time where neither blacks nor gays seemed to have a place in our country.

At the age of sixteen, Ellis came out in 1915 and is widely credited as being the oldest out lesbian in American history, living to be 101. Though she claimed she never really came out of the closet, she was always just herself; she didn’t know what being in the closet meant. Her mother died when she was young, so being a black lesbian with no role models of what being a woman or being gay was, proved to be more than difficult.

Though she struggled academically, Ellis completed high school in a time where less than seven percent of black girls were able to finish high school. The daughter of a freed slave who taught himself to read and write and would eventually become the first black mail-carrier in Illinois, Ellis followed in her father’s footsteps of self-education. She taught herself photography and printing and became the first woman to own a printing business in Illinois.

Beyond being openly gay in a time where almost no one was openly gay and being a black female business owner at a time when women just won the right to vote, Ruth Ellis created perhaps one of the first safe-zones for black LGBT people in the U.S. (Read more about the ACLU of Pennsylvania’s LGBT Issues)

Ellis and her partner bought a home together in Detroit which became known as “The Gay Spot” by those in the black gay community. From 1946 to 1971, this safe space provided a place to go for blacks unwelcome at local bars and was a refuge to blacks who were “out” before there was a Stonewall. Over the years, many of the couple’s guests were students, and Ellis personally assisted many of them with money for college, books, and food. This home was also open to black gay men coming from the South in need of a place to establish themselves.

Despite growing up with limited exposure to the world, Ellis provided for the basic need of love and acceptance to so many in the area. Eventually Ellis would be acquainted with lesbians from all over the country and participate in homegrown activism across many states. In 1999, the Ruth Ellis Center was established in her honor with a mission to “provide short and long-term residential safe space and support services for runaway, homeless, and at-risk lesbian, gay, bi-attractional, transgender, and questioning youth.”

Ellis was a pioneer without having her name splashed in the news and without a following, moving her personal mission along. She was an everyday black woman, being herself and supporting her community. I can only hope to be half the woman for half as long as Ms. Ellis.

Now that I think about the simple yet extraordinary life of a woman we know little about, I realize this is how I view the ACLU and the people we stand up for, simple yet extraordinary. Those we fight for aren’t flashy and you probably only hear about them when a lawsuit is being brought against someone pretty vocal, but that’s not what creates change. Leaders don’t have to talk about how great they are or prove their worth; they do what’s right because it’s the right thing to do. Even if you’ve never heard of her, Ruth Ellis was a leader and so are all of the overlooked and underappreciated, everyday heroes who have stood up and done the right thing, simply because it was the right thing.

This post is part of a series in honor of Black History Month.

Melissa Morris comes to the ACLU-PA with more than 15 years of experience as a program developer and trainer for community based organizations and within higher education.

Estranged Family: Black History Month and the Stigma of Gays in the Black Community

By Hollis Holmes, Legal Fellow, ACLU of Pennsylvania

(credit: All rights reserved by tnar/g/rant)

(credit: All rights reserved by tnar/g/rant)

My early experiences of Black History Month conjure up images of Martin Luther King Jr., Fredrick Douglass, and Harriet Tubman. I saw the same images year after year, with maybe a few controversial figures like Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali included. By fourth grade, I formed my opinion of the annual event as a limited and symbolic reminder of the contributions of my race to America. It wasn’t until my teens, while discovering my sexual identity, that I thought more seriously about this specific celebration of black figures. A teacher instructed us to write an essay on an influential person; however, I struggled to find an individual, both black and gay, whom I could relate to. Not seeing myself reflected in the celebration of Black History Month, I realized the black community fails to accept and even stigmatizes homosexuality.

Now, apparently support amongst black voters for same-sex marriage is approximately the same as whites. While a positive step, the black community still must understand that the fight for equality extends beyond marriage to basic civil rights. Black transgender people, isolated even within the LGBT community, particularly face shocking levels of discrimination and almost non-stop violence. While black LGBT people accounted for 73 per cent of the homicides in 2012 amongst the LGBT community, black transgender women accounted for the highest number of those murdered. The condition of black youth is also very appalling, where they disproportionately experience homelessness more than their white counterparts due in large part to family rejection and employment and educational discrimination.

In spite of this crisis for survival, black churches and pastors remain a pivotal force in hindering the expansion of gay rights. Reverend Patrick Wooden, a pastor of North Carolina, likened himself to Martin Luther King, Jr., after receiving a standing ovation from a 3,000 member congregation for his efforts in successfully passing a statewide amendment banning same-sex marriage. Other institutions mirror the opposition of the black churches. In spite of progress at a couple of black academic institutions, of more than 100 Historically Black Colleges and Universities across the United States, fewer than a quarter offer course listings with LGBT-related classes or formally recognize LGBT student groups. The lack of community support forces people to choose one side of an intersectional identity over the other, seeking refuge in the LGBT community while losing visibility in the black community. Even more, this shunning of black gay people comes across as ignorance to the fact that we still also endure the obstacles associated with the historical legacies of slavery, and on that basis alone need black community to share common experience.

Black History Month, a time when we celebrate black historical figures, reveals the stigma against black gays present in the black community. People left out of the dialogue include Audre Lorde, Bayard Rustin, Alvin Ailey, Basquiat, Josephine Baker… and the list goes on. Even if granted some visibility, the sexual orientation of figures like James Baldwin is often excluded or under-emphasized in public commentary. About her experience, Audre Lorde states, “I remember how being young and black and gay and lonely felt. A lot of it was fine, feeling I had the truth and the light and the key, but a lot of it was purely hell.” Feelings such as this persist, even though seemingly out of place with the recent expansion of gay rights.

Challenging America not to erase the contributions of black individuals from public consciousness depends on the efforts of the black community to value our own history. The support of President Obama and the NAACP for same-sex marriage provides an opportunity to internally address existing homophobia and embrace black gays, lesbians, bisexual, and transgender persons. In doing this work, the black community has the power to capitalize on the moment by alleviating the hypocrisy associated with the exclusion of black gays and redefine the black American legacy.

This post is part of a series in honor of Black History Month.