By DAN ROBRISH
The Elizabethtown Advocate
In most parts of Pennsylvania, it’s perfectly legal for businesses to fire employees because they are gay.
Unless there’s a local law saying otherwise, it’s perfectly legal for Pennsylvania landlords to refuse to rent to prospective tenants because they are gay, or to refuse to renew leases because their tenants are gay.
Whether a public accommodation may refuse service to prospective customers because they are gay is a legal gray area. But the Star Barn in West Donegal Township does just that by allowing opposite-sex couples to marry there but not same-sex couples. Owner David Abel has said it is a matter of religious freedom.
Dozens of people gathered at Elizabethtown’s Center Square on Thursday, April 11, because they want discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation to be banned, just like current law bans discrimination on the basis of race or religion.
Another group gathered to support the Star Barn. They did not have speakers, but passed out a handbill saying they were not protesting gays, but rather supporting Abel’s religious freedom. Some of them were playing guitars, drumming and singing, making the first group’s speakers have to use a bullhorn to be heard.
The Star Barn had its policy in place for years, but it came to widespread public attention when the tourism promotion group Discover Lancaster planned to hold its annual meeting there on Thursday, April 11. The meeting was canceled as a result of public outcry, but the rally was still held.
A number of police officers stood by and observed. Police Chief Ed Cunningham said as the crowd dispersed that he had seen nothing illegal and that the two groups got along as well as one could expect.
Eric Fisher of the activist group Lancaster Stands Up was the first to speak. He said he grew up in Lancaster County and left for college. But he said he and his husband, Mark Smelzer, came back to Lancaster County because they wanted to raise their son with extended family nearby. But he said it is troubling to be without the legal protections they had enjoyed in New York.
“In the state of New York, Mark and I didn’t need to worry about being discriminated against for being gay. We didn’t have to worry about being fired for being gay,” Fisher said.
Fisher said he supports religious freedom, but he said the Star Barn is a secular place.
“That is not a church or a place of worship. That is a place of business, and if he doesn’t want gay people getting married there, he shouldn’t be holding weddings,” Fisher said.
Fisher also noted that Lancaster City has a local law banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and said it is not interfering with religious freedom.
“From what I can tell, churches are doing just fine,” Fisher said.
Fisher noted that he and Smelzer live just outside the city limits and work in the city, so their legal protections fluctuate throughout the day.
“Every day as we go to work, we cross the line into safety,” Fisher said, only to cross the line again as they go home.
Smelzer said although he is a transplant to Lancaster County, it is not entirely unfamiliar, since he grew up as a non-Mormon in Ogden, Utah.
“I know all about being a minority in a religious area,” Smelzer said.
Smelzer said the issue is discrimination, not religion.
“When someone says, ‘We will offer a service in a state-licensed public accommodation, but we will not offer it to all,’ that is discrimination,” Smelzer said.
Mary Auker-Endres, who was the Democratic nominee for state representative last year and for an Elizabethtown Borough Council seat the year before, said she wants a state law banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, but she will push for local laws in the meantime.
“We’ll do it municipality by municipality if that’s the way we have to do it for now,” Auker-Endres said. She added later that the Elizabethtown Democratic Committee, which she leads, will soon present model anti-discrimination ordinances to borough and township governments.
Erica Millner, who runs the jewelry business Mio Studio in downtown Lancaster with her wife, Mai Orama Muñiz, said she was disappointed with Discover Lancaster’s decision to meet at the Star Barn.
“I really don’t think I should be paying money to go to an event that doesn’t support me and my family,” Millner said.
Millner added that she had great respect for the Council of Churches’ work with aiding refugees and she hopes people will provide love and respect to their neighbors, no matter who.
Suzette Mullen, 58, said she is a Christian and did not come out as a lesbian until her mid-50s, after a 30-year marriage to a man.
“It was hard enough to come out to myself,” Mullen said.
She said her two sons, who are also Christians, both wept when she told them she is a lesbian; she said they wept was not because she is gay but because they know she would endure a lot of pain from people who do not accept her as she is.
Kelly Shaffer Fuddy said she is also a Christian who had a gradual process of becoming an ally to gays.
“I was born and raised here in Elizabethtown. I’ve been a Christian all my life,” Fuddy said. She said she didn’t know any openly gay people growing up and never thought much about discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
“It just wasn’t something that came up,” Fuddy said.
But she said she is now worshiping at an Episcopal church in Mount Joy specifically because the congregation is welcoming to all, regardless of sexual orientation.
She said she works as a chaplain in a clinic that treats people with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, popularly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. But she said she serves Christians and non-Christians alike.
“I don’t have a choice about who I serve. I’m a Christian, but I serve everybody,” Fuddy said.
She said she had proudly officiated at wedding ceremonies for same-sex couples before the unions were legally recognized in Pennsylvania and it was a great step forward when she finally had a chance to sign the paperwork for a legally recognized marriage of two women.
Fuddy emphasized that she is a local person who grew up in town.
“This is not outsiders coming in. This is Elizabethtown,” she said.
One of the Star Barn’s supporters was Elizabethtown resident Tom Dice, who said in an interview that he supports a private business owner to operate as he chooses.
“I don’t think it’s right that somebody’s right to do one thing impacts on another person’s right,” Dice said.
“Personally, I don’t have a feeling on it one way or another,” Dice said about same-sex marriage, but he said a private business should be allowed to decide whom it serves.
“That’s their property. … It would be different if it’s a public venue, but this isn’t; it’s a private venue,” Dice said.