In a 35-page petition filed last week, the city asked the state Supreme Court to review a lower-court ruling exempting SEPTA from adherence to the city’s LGBT-inclusive antibias rules.
The Aug. 7 ruling by Commonwealth Court was blasted by LGBT advocates, who maintain SEPTA’s LGBT riders and employees would be negatively impacted if SEPTA doesn’t have to comply with local antibias rules.
SEPTA has about 9,000 workers and more than 600,000 riders daily. The transit system serves Philadelphia, four nearby Pennsylvania counties and some areas of New Jersey and Delaware.
But SEPTA claims that, as a state agency, it doesn’t have to comply with the city’s LGBT-inclusive antibias rules. Instead, it complies with the state’s anti-bias rules, which aren’t LGBT-inclusive.
The highly contentious litigation began 2009, after trans woman Charlene Arcila complained to the city’s Human Relations Commission about SEPTA’s placement of gender stickers on transpasses. Arcila died in April, and SEPTA no longer places gender stickers on transpasses. But Arcila’s complaint remains held in abeyance, due to the possibility that monetary damages will be awarded to her estate.
In August, Commonwealth Court ruled that exposing SEPTA to complaints such as Arcila’s would be unduly burdensome.
“Spending [public] funds to ensure compliance with any potential number of different local anti-discrimination statutes would divert [the funds] away from SEPTA’s core mission of providing public transportation,” the ruling stated.
The city’s Sept. 8 petition claims that SEPTA has a $1.65-billion annual operating budget, and should be capable of complying with the city’s antibias rules.
The petition goes on to denounce the “substantial undermining of human dignity and human rights wrought by the [Commonwealth Court’s] decision.”
If left standing, the ruling would “leave hundreds of thousands of Philadelphia passengers and employees without a remedy against many forms of discrimination,” the city contends.
In addition, the petition states, Commonwealth Court “mangled” the law of sovereign immunity as applied to SEPTA.
“Commonwealth Court’s holding that sovereign immunity completely immunizes SEPTA from compliance with local ordinances (except, apparently, zoning and traffic and possibly parking ordinances) flies in the face of and rewrites an extensive body of case law construing sovereign immunity far more narrowly,” the petition states.
The city has “clear authority” to enact comprehensive antibias laws and, if allowed to stand, Commonwealth Court’s ruling will cause “great mischief,” the petition adds.
Patrick Northen, an attorney for SEPTA, said the transit agency will reply to the city’s petition within the next two weeks. He declined additional comment.
Mark McDonald, a spokesperson for Mayor Nutter, had no comment.