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Pennsylvania voters to decide racial equity amendment

HARRISBURG - Protests over George Floyd’s killing at the hands of Minneapolis police were raging across the country last June when a Democratic lawmaker took to the floor of the Pennsylvania Senate to argue for greater protections against racial discrimination.

Next week, nearly a year after Floyd’s death, voters will decide whether to make those protections explicit in the state constitution. It’s believed to be the first time since last summer’s protests that voters will decide a racial equity question on a statewide ballot.

Its effects, if approved by voters, are uncertain, but civil rights groups say it potentially could lead to policy changes in housing, policing, education and other areas. Pennsylvania would join several other states that make specific references to race in their constitutions’ anti-discrimination provisions.

State Sen. Vince Hughes said court cases and judicial decisions ultimately will determine the practical effect of the proposal he sponsored, but he sees the amendment as a step in the right direction.

The Philadelphia lawmaker said he wants it in place if federal anti-discrimination case law is ever reversed by conservative federal judges appointed by former President Donald Trump or the Republican-majority U.S. Supreme Court.

“Any extra protection that we can provide around the issue of race and ethnicity, I think we need to be in the business of providing,” said Hughes, a member of the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus. “And if we can add that extra protection to the state constitution, the lawyers that I talk to said that that’s a good thing.”

The proposed constitutional amendment, which passed both chambers last summer and again early this year with bipartisan support, was included in a vote that put two other, unrelated amendment proposals on Tuesdays’ primary ballot. Both were Republican measures to rein in a governor’s executive powers during emergencies such as the coronavirus pandemic and give the Legislature much greater authority.

In an odd twist, it’s why Hughes and nearly all other Democrats in the General Assembly voted against his racial equity amendment.

Lawmakers had to cast just a single vote for all three amendments, and Democrats strongly opposed the GOP measures because they view them as a way to undercut the current Democratic governor.

If approved by voters, Hughes’ amendment would add a section to the state constitution saying equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged because of someone’s race or ethnicity. By including ethnicity, the amendment also applies to Latinos.

It would become the constitution’s fourth equality provision. In different places, the document already states that “all men are born equally free and independent,” includes a 1971 amendment that ensures gender equality and ensures that the state or local governments cannot stop someone from exercising their civil rights.

An analysis for voters by the state attorney general’s office said the measure would increase protections against discrimination, including that which unintentionally affects people of color.

Race-conscious programs that increase equality, the agency said, will still be permitted. The amendment would apply to state, county and local government entities.

Pennsylvania state Sen. Vince Hughes, D-Philadelphia, poses in the Rotunda of the state Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa on Wednesday May 21, 2021. State voters next week will decide whether to add a racial equality provision to the state constitution, a measure Hughes introduced last year, two weeks after George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Mark Scolforo)
In this Tuesday, June 2, 2020 file photo, demonstrators chant, at Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia, during a protest over the death of George Floyd, who was killed May 25 by Minneapolis police. State voters next week will decide whether to add a racial equality provision to the state constitution, a measure Pennsylvania state Sen. Vince Hughes introduced last year, two weeks after Floyd died. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)