How Rep. Brian Sims turned an attack on the House floor into progress
The current legislative season is expected to end this weekend—assuming the Senate passes a budget and the governor signs it—but for members of the House, who’ve already passed their budget, much of the last week was about formalities before summer break.
At the end of the session, representatives can ask to be recognized to speak under unanimous consent of the House, in which legislators can speak of uncontroversial issues. Often, representatives will wish each other happy birthday or speak of something important that happened to them recently. Sims had called yesterday’s DOMA and Proposition 8 decisions “possibly the biggest news in LGBT civil rights in my lifetime”—so, that qualified as something of note for him. And not just as an openly-gay man, but a civil rights lawyer.
As per House rules, Sims asked Speaker of the House Sam Smith (R-Jefferson) if he could speak on the DOMA case. “I promised him that I was going to be very respectful, I wasn’t going to talk about how far Pennsylvania has to go or that the Republican caucus is an obstacle to equality. I really was just going to speak about—as a civil rights attorney—a major civil rights case,” Sims told Philadelphia Weekly.
Smith told him he thought someone may object.
After getting about “three or four words” into his speech, Smith cut him off, citing another legislator’s wishes.
Several members of the Democratic caucus then began grabbing microphones to speak on the DOMA case—and each were shut down. Ultimately, the speaker gaveled out and ended the session before anyone was able to say anything of substance.
The objection had been made anonymously, and the Democrats on the floor wanted to know who did it. Smith would not say. After a bit of ruckus, state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe (R-Butler), an outspoken conservative and prime sponsor of an anti-gay marriage bill in the Legislature, began shouting at Sims and the Democrats to quit it.
As Sims tells it, Metcalfe yelled out, ‘If you need a name, use my name.’ Metcalfe was one of the representatives who had objected.
Soon afterwards, several members of the Democratic and Republican caucus came up to Sims and spoke quietly. Sims says virtually all of them were extremely apologetic for what had gone down.
“I was really overwhelmed by the response on both sides of the aisle. And that, to me, was the most important part of this,” recalls Sims. “Instantly, Republicans were down on the floor apologizing. All day [Thursday], Republicans have been coming up to me one by one to apologize to me for the breakdown and lack of decorum. And to let me know that they are not in the Daryl Metcalfe sort of school.”
State Rep. Mike Schlossberg (D-Lehigh) sent out a message to supporters yesterday detailing the ordeal, noting Republicans used a “procedural maneuver to” shut down Sims’ speech. He added: “More to the point, I am so proud of my friend Brian, who is an absolutely incredible fighter for equality, and has more guts in his pinky than every Republican who tries to shut him up.”
State Rep. Maria Donatucci (D-Philadelphia) took to Twitter to say what she thought of the ordeal: “Suppression of speech should have never happened in the Chamber of the House–the very institution that protects our rights.”
In an interview with WHYY, Metcalfe did not take back his banter, and perhaps took it a bit farther, noting it was against “God’s law” for Sims to speak on DOMA.
“I did not believe that as a member of that body that I should allow someone to make comments such as he was preparing to make that ultimately were just open rebellion against what the word of God has said, what God has said, and just open rebellion against God’s law,” said Metcalfe.
Two things happened after that: The LGBT Equality Caucus in the state Legislature began a new push for co-sponsors of the anti-discrimination bills in the House and Senate; and Sims announced he would be introducing an LGBT marriage equality bill alongside state Rep. Stephen McCarter (D-Montgomery).
“Rather than just be pissed off, rather than to make statements about it, we empowered members of the LGBT equality caucus to go out and get as much more support behind HB 300 as we could as a result of this,” Sims says.
And that happened. Rep. Rob Matzie (D-Beaver) became the 84th House member to co-sponsor the bill, on Thursday. According to Rep. Mark Painter (D-Montgomery) there are now 87 sponsors of the House bill, up from 77 when it was introduced.
House Bill 300 and Senate Bill 300 were introduced on May 7 and would make it illegal to discriminate against someone in Pennsylvania because of “sexual orientation and gender identity or expression” in the same way discrimination against race or sex is illegal. Incredibly, it’s legal to discriminate against someone for their sexual orientation in much of Pennsylvania.
Sims’ and McCarter’s marriage equality bill will act as the House supplement to state Sen. Daylin Leach’s (D-Montgomery) legislation in the senate.
Leach’s bill is SB 719. Sims says he plans on giving his House version of the bill the same numerals: HB 719.
In a joint statement released yesterday afternoon, Sims and McCarter noted that Pennsylvanians are ready for gay marriage. (And polls are beginning to show they’re right.)
“LGBT Pennsylvanians are seeing their neighbors in New York, Maryland and Delaware, among other states, now qualify for the approximately 1,000 federal rights and benefits that come with civil marriage and they are increasingly asking why they don’t have those same rights, as well as the state rights and benefits. Marriage equality has steadily grown, now standing at majority support in recent Pennsylvania polls. I believe that more and more legislators from both parties will decide to be on the right side of history,” noted Sims in the press release.
“With the recent Supreme Court ruling against the Defense of Marriage Act, it is time for the Pennsylvania General Assembly to finally take swift action in ensuring that all our citizens have fair and equal rights in choosing whom they may marry. All marriage is equal and government has no role in weighing the value or legitimacy of a couple’s love based on their sexual orientation,” said McCarter.
Sims also took to the House floor last night to call on Speaker Smith to reprimand Metcalfe for the “God’s will” remarks he made to WHYY.
“A few months ago I reminded this house that we put our hands on the Bible and swore to uphold the Constitution not the other way around,” Sims said on the House floor. “What I did was in no way against the law of any God.”
Smith noted if Sims wants to seek any sort of justice against Metcalfe, he needs to draft a resolution or bring the issue to the Ethics Committee. Sims’ predecessor, former state Rep. Babette Josephs, also had problems with the Butler County Republican.
It’s been a long few days. And Sims seems to have taken the ordeal as a Harrisburgian lesson; a teachable moment, if you will.
“The fact that these people will fight tooth and nail for the Second Amendment and, yet, fully dismiss my First Amendment rights is a problem,” he says, calling the ordeal less Republicans vs. Democrats, but more The House vs. the Tea Party.
He adds that colleagues (whom he did not name) seemed to believe that if a straight member of the caucus had stood up to speak, it may not have become an issue. After all, State Sen. Jim Ferlo (D-Allegheny) spoke about DOMA on the Senate floor Wednesday.
“Republicans and Democrats wanted to let me know that it was horrible form, most of them had never seen anything like that happen on the house floor ever before,” he says, “and that it was directed at me because of who I am.”
UPDATE: Newsworks reports that Sims has now called upon the Legislature to censure Metcalfe for his comments. State Rep. Frankel (D-Allegheny) has released a statement noting that Metcalfe’s “anti-gay comments don’t speak for most Pennsylvanians, including many Republicans.”
Note: A typo in the original version of this article identified State Rep. Daryl Metcalfe as a (D).
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