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Pa. Residents Asked To Apply To Redraw State’s Political Districts, Serve As Tie Breaker

harrisburg_capitol_building.jpg
Patrick Doyle
/
90.5 WESA
The state Capitol building in Harrisburg.

On today's program: State lawmakers are considering candidates for the commission in charge of drawing new political district lines, a process that has previously been secretive; a lawyer representing 33 plaintiffs in a suit against the U.S. Department of Education explains why higher education institutions that accept federal funds shouldn’t be allowed religious exemptions, and one of the plaintiffs who attended college in Pennsylvania recounts his experience at Clarks Summit University.

Lawmakers look to the public to chair legislative redistricting commissioner(0:00 — 7:18)

Pennsylvania lawmakers are gearing up for a once-in-a-decade redistricting battle where a select group will decide where to draw new boundaries for the state’s Legislative districts.

The redistricting commission has five members. Each of the four legislative leaders appoints one, usually themselves, and the fifth is appointed to possibly break ties.

“This redistricting process has largely been done in secret over the decades,” says Marie Albiges, a reporter for SpotlightPA and Votebeat. Last decade, however, the process became more open with public comment on proposed maps, hearings, and a fifth commission member from the public.

“This time around, the four current members of the redistricting commission have pledged transparency and they have pledged for an open process and they have once again opened up the floor to consider the public for that fifth member,” says Albiges.

Should the commission disagree on a fifth member, the state Supreme Court will select them. Past chairs have had extensive law experience: some have been judges, deans of university law schools, and attorneys.

The only legal requirements for applicants of the chair are that they are a citizen of Pennsylvania who isn’t holding a paid, local, state, or federal office. There is a bill moving through the legislature to prevent those with political ties, either as a candidate, lobbyist, or spouse of a lobbyist, from applying. But the bill is unlikely to pass in time to legally affect the commission’s pick.

Applications for the chair position closed Friday, April 9.

Once a chair is picked, the commission is tasked with drawing lines for 203 House districts and 50 state Senate districts throughout the state.

A lawsuit against the Supreme Court aims to limit religious exemptions for higher education institutions(7:31 — 11:55)

A lawsuit has been filed against the U.S. Department of Education on behalf of 33 current and former students at Christian colleges and universities.

The suit claims discriminatory practices against LGBTQ students at these institutions are unconstitutional because the schools accept billions of dollars in federal funds.

“As an example of that, Liberty University alone receives about a billion dollars annually from the federal government,” says Paul Southwick. He is one of the attorneys that filed this suit and director of the Religious Exemption Accountability Project. “A lot of that money is from the Department of Education through government-subsidized loans [to students], some of that money is direct grants.”

Southwick says any institution that accepts and participates in federal student loan programs has to follow Title IX rules unless there are exemptions for them, like the existing religious exemption. Who qualifies for this exemption, however, has largely depended on the presidential administration.

The lawsuit Southwick is bringing against the Department of Education seeks to eliminate religious exemptions completely against students who identify as LGBTQ.

“It wasn’t until the Trump Administration that new regulations at the last minute were put into place that pretty much says, ‘If you are somewhat religious and you have some kind of belief that doesn’t align with any aspect of Title IX, you get an exemption and you don’t even have to ask for it,’” says Southwick.

The Religious Exemption Accountability Project has found there are about 600 Christian universities nationwide, and a third of them have policies that discriminate against LGBTQ students.

One student’s experience at Clarks Summit University(11:55 — 18:00)

Three of the 33 students named in Paul Southwick’s lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Education as plaintiffs attended schools in Pennsylvania. Gary Campbell is one of them: he’s a former student at Clarks Summit University, formerly called Baptist Bible College.

“I was under the impression that in order to please God I, you know, one, had to attend the Bible college and two, had to pretty much change my sexuality,” says Campbell.

Before going to college, Campbell told his pastoral staff he was gay, and they agreed he would attend therapy, which he now says was conversion therapy.

“Once I got to the school, they were very concerned with me living in a dorm with 59 other guys, being a Christian who struggles with homosexuality, so they were pretty persistent that like, once you get there you have to find accountability, you have to seek counseling.”

After Campbell was caught with another gay student, the school insisted on more counseling and group therapy, which Campbell had to pay for himself.

Campbell ultimately left the school. Years later, he wanted to return to finish his degree, but the school rescinded its offer because Campbell says, administration staff found out he is still gay.

In a statement regarding the lawsuit and Campbell’s experience, a Clarks Summit University spokesperson said the university adheres to “biblical standards” and asks its students to do the same.

The statement also said: “We believe students who have demonstrated financial need should continue to be given the freedom to choose the school that fits both their career and life goals as well as their faith convictions.”

The Confluence, where the news comes together, is 90.5 WESA’s daily news program. Tune in weekdays at 9 a.m. to hear newsmakers and innovators take an in-depth look at stories important to the Pittsburgh region. Find more episodes of The Confluence here or wherever you get your podcasts.

Kevin Gavin is the host of WESA's news interview program "The Confluence." He is a native Pittsburgher and served as news director for 90.5 WDUQ for 34 years. Since the sale of the radio station by Duquesne University to Pittsburgh EPM, Inc. (now Pittsburgh Community Broadcasting Corp.), he served as Executive Producer of Special News Projects prior to being named as host of "The Confluence" five years ago. kgavin@wesa.fm
Marylee is the editor/producer of The Confluence, the daily public affairs show on WESA. She got her start in journalism at The Daily Reveille and KLSU while attending Louisiana State University. She took her passion for audio journalism to UC Berkeley's graduate program and worked in public radio at WPR in Madison, WI, and WOSU in Columbus, Ohio.
Laura Tsutsui is a producer for The Confluence, WESA's morning news show. Previously, she reported on the San Joaquin Valley with the NPR affiliate station in her hometown of Fresno, California. She can be reached at ltsutsui@wesa.fm.
Born and raised in Pittsburgh, Isabelle is a student at George Washington University studying Political Communication. She loves all things Pittsburgh sports and serves as a sports anchor for GW-TV. In her free time, she enjoys museum hopping and walking her dog, Stevie.
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