An awful lot gets done in the state Capitol in Harrisburg each year.
Ironically, the statehouse stories that grabbed the attention of Times Observer readers focused on bills that may never become law. Those included legislation allowing marriages to be performed by internet-ordained officiants, legalization of marijuana, a ban on the teaching of critical race theory in Pennsylvania schools, the possible return of vehicle registration stickers and legislation to criminalize the harassment of high school and youth sports referees.
House Bill 485 was introduced early in the year by Rep. Jeanne McNeill, D-Lehigh, and referred to the House Judiciary Committee.
And there the bill has sat.
McNeill wants the state to recognize marriages as long as they are officiated by someone authorized by the customs of the sanctioning organization.
The Associated Press reported in March 2019 that the question of Internet-ordained ministers had led to at least three dozen couples remarrying their spouse so that their marriages were legally recognized.
“What it comes down to, frankly, is religious intolerance,” said Mary Catherine Roper, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania told the AP. “Once you decide that you, the judge, are going to pass judgment on whether a religion has a right to form its ministry in a particular way, you’ve got a real problem with the First Amendment.”
A Bucks County judge allayed some fears last month with a 15-page opinion that upheld the qualifications of a Universal Life Church minister ordained through the church’s Web site. The ACLU won similar cases in Philadelphia and Montgomery counties.
The rulings conflict with a 2007 decision in York County, where a judge said Internet-ordained ministers cannot legally marry couples in the state. The ACLU hopes to get the York County decision reversed or to take it to an appeals court for a statewide ruling.
My bill would allow any individual of a religious body that is authorized by the rules of that religion to perform a marriage to be able to do so in Pennsylvania,” McNeill wrote. “My bill reflects Maryland’s current law and is very similar to language included in other states’ marriage laws such as Hawaii, New Jersey, North Dakota and Oregon. The number of couples who choose for a variety of different reasons to use ministers ordained online has been growing quickly in the past decade. It is imperative that we, as state representatives, work to protect the sanctity of these unions and the religious freedom of our constituents.”
LEGALIZATION GETS A GOP BACKER
Democrats have long pushed for the legalization of marijuana, typically with little or no Republican support. But in October, Sen. Mike Regan, R-Cumberland/York, began circulating a co-sponsorship memorandum signaling his intention to introduce legislation legalizing adult-use marijuana in the state. Regan explained his rationale in a weekend guest essay circulated to newspapers in his Senate district.
Regan’s bill can’t be discussed because it still hasn’t been filed.
But the senator is proposing adult use for those ages 21 and over, establish a new regulatory control board much like New York’s program does and remove penalties for use and possession of marijuana by adults. Those who purchase marijuana would not see any change in their ability to purchased firearms. Regan also said his legislation would address DUI enforcement, and develop education and deterrents for underage use and possession.
According to the legislative memorandum Regan, which Regan filed Monday, money raised by his legalized marijuana program would partially benefit the Pennsylvania State Police and invest in the state’s roads and bridges.
Republicans in the Pennsylvania statehouse have typically opposed marijuana legalization bills, some of which have been introduced since the early 1980s by Democrats. Gov. Tom Wolf and Lt. Gov. John Fetterman have been vocal in their support of marijuana legalization bills.
“For those questioning my sponsorship of such legislation, it is important to recognize that legalization of adult-use marijuana in Pennsylvania is inevitable,” Regan wrote. “As chairman of the Senate Law and Justice Committee and a former member of law enforcement, rather than sit idly by and allow others to shape the legislation, I am stepping up to be a leader on the issue, as I did on medical marijuana. And I am doing so using a common-sense, bipartisan, bicameral approach that will provide Pennsylvanians access to a safe product, create thousands of jobs, level the playing field with neighboring states, support law enforcement and our communities, and more importantly, defund the deadly drug cartels who have wreaked so much havoc on the commonwealth and our country for so many years.”
Earlier this year, Sen. Dan Laughlin, R-Erie, became one of the first Republicans to publicly support legalized marijuana in the state. Laughlin and Sen. Sharif Street, D-Philadelphia, announced a joint plan in February legalize adult-use cannabis, create a state-run system for growing and selling the drug and expunge records for nonviolent cannabis-related offenses. Laughlin and Street said the proposal also prioritizes licensee applicants who’ve suffered disproportionately from the war on drugs and encourages the growth of smaller operations.
“We will proceed with caution,” Laughlin said earlier this year. “It’s going to take a lot of phone calls and emails to get moving through the committee process and to the floor for a vote.”
CRITICAL RACE THEORY
Two Republicans — Rep. Russ Diamond, R-Lebanon, and Rep. Barbara Gleim, R-Cumberland, along with 11 Republican co-sponsors — want the legislature to pass House Bill 1532, the “Teaching Racial and Universal Equality Act.”
The act would include in state law that no Pennsylvania school district, public postsecondary institution, or state or local government entity shall teach that any race or sex is superior to another, that any individual based on their race or sex is inherently racist or sexist, or that any individual should receive favorable treatment or be discriminated against based on their race or sex.
“The manner in which important concepts such as racial and gender equality are taught in our schools could not be more important in defining the type of society we have,” Diamond and Gleim wrote in their legislative memorandum. “Teaching our children that they are inferior or inherently bad based on immutable characteristics such as race and sex can be extremely damaging to their emotional and mental well-being.”
Idaho, Oklahoma and Tennessee have passed similar pieces of legislation in recent days, according to the Associated Press, while at least 16 states are considering or have signed into law bills that would limit the teaching of certain ideas linked to “critical race theory,” which seeks to reframe the narrative of American history. Its proponents argue that federal law has preserved the unequal treatment of people on the basis of race and that the country was founded on the theft of land and labor.
Despite Republican control of the state Legislature, there has been no movement on House Bill 1532. No votes have been held, nor are any currently scheduled.
A party-line vote in March sent House Bill 334 through the House Transportation Committee. The bill was re-committed to the Appropriations Committee on March 23 and hasn’t moved since.
The reason for the bill, according to Rep. Barry Jozwiak, R-Berks, is the aftermath of PennDOT’s decision to stop issuing registration expiration stickers in January 2017. Since then, he said, PennDOT has lost $22 million in 2017, $11 million in 2018 and $18 million in 2019, for a total of $51 million, all in lost registration renewal revenue.
“The system of not putting expiration stickers was tried and failed,” Jowziak said during Monday’s meeting. “It has become a public safety issue in my opinion. It is time to put the registration stickers back on the vehicle license plates and let’s make sure all vehicles on the road are properly inspected, insured and registered.”
Rep. Stephen Kinsey, D-Philadelphia, and Rep. Mike Carroll, D-Luzerne/Lackawanna, both voted against the bill after questioning Jowziak. Kinsey asked how the legislation deals with an issue Philadelphia faced in years past when people would steal the stickers from other people’s license plates so that unregistered vehicles could be driven and look as if they were registered. Kinsey asked if the sticker could go inside the windshield like it does in New York state. The Philadelphia Democrat also asked if there were any statistics showing how many times police had pulled over drivers for having an out-of-day sticker on their license plate. Jowziak said he did not have those numbers. Carroll agreed with Kinsey that stolen stickers were a serious problem in Philadelphia while also questioning Jowziak’s lost revenue statistics. Carroll said PennDOT statistics showed a minimal variation of about 12,000 vehicle registrations from 2016 through 2019 — a number he said should not outweigh the added convenience of the current system.
“So what I would say is that while I respect the desire to have additional probable cause for police officers to pull folks over, it seems to me police officers have plenty of probable cause — (driving) across the center line, it swerved, there’s a light out on the vehicle,” Carroll said. “I think the trade-off here in terms of making sacrifice for convenience to bring back stickers isn’t worth it, and so I’ll oppose the bill and hope that we as a society and a law enforcement will recognize the need that sometimes things evolve and the return to the past with respect to stickers is probably not a great idea.”
HOT TEMPERS AT SPORTING EVENTS
A close play in a high school or youth sports game can quickly cause tempers to flare.
Those who take their consternation too far, however, could end up facing a fine if legislation proposed by Rep. Anita Astorino Kulik, D-Allegheny, is approved in the state Legislature. Kulik introduced legislation recently that would create the crime of harassment of a sports official. The bill was referred to the House Judiciary Committee.
The charge would be a third-degree misdemeanor punishable by six months to a year in jail and a fine of up to $2,500.
“Sports officials, such as umpires and referees, are essential to the sporting events thousands of families attend each year in Pennsylvania,” Kulik wrote in her legislative justification. “Regardless of the sport, a sports official’s job is a highly stressful one. This is due in no small part to the split-second, often contentious, rulings they are required to make. These calls sometimes result in strong disagreements expressed by players, coaches, and spectators.”
State law currently includes protection for sports officials, but only if they are assaulted. The maximum penalty for assault on a sports official is 2 1/2 to five years in prison, but the charge is rarely used. A 2017 York Daily Record story noted that only six people have been sentenced on a charge of assault on a sports official from 2006 to 2015.
Kulik’s bill was referred to the Judiciary Committee. No votes are scheduled.