As debate in Congress over workplace protections for sexual orientation and gender identity reached a breaking point this month, several local Republicans broke from their party to back anti-discrimination measures.


A fracas broke out on the House floor May 19 when lawmakers narrowly shot down a bid to ban federal contractors from discriminating against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender workers. The proposal was to be attached to a military construction budget bill.


Democrats chanted "shame" as GOP leaders extended voting on the measure, which passed at first, until enough lawmakers changed their votes to defeat it.


Three of the four GOP lawmakers who represent the Berks and Tri-County area were steadfast in their support for the plan: U.S. Reps. Charlie Dent, Ryan Costello and Pat Meehan.


Dent said he supported the plan because taxpayers' dollars should not underwrite employment discrimination. He also spearheaded an unsuccessful effort to remove from a defense bill a religious freedom provision critics say would allow discrimination by some federal contractors.


Dent of Allentown said further debate in Congress is needed over how to balance religious freedom with anti-discrimination protections for the LGBT community.


"These issues are not mutually exclusive," Dent said.


He said religious groups have a valid argument against mandates to buy contraception or products that conflict with their beliefs. But he said, religious liberty should be a "shield," not a "sword."


"We shouldn't use religious freedom as a pretext to discriminate against individuals," Dent said.


Either way, Dent said, the budget process is not the appropriate venue for such debates, and he'd rather see religious liberty and discrimination addressed on their own.


Costello of Chester County had the opposite take. He said tying anti-discrimination provisions to budget bills advances a debate that otherwise may fail to gain traction.


"It forces people to deal with the issue," he said.


As for his position, Costello said he voted his conscience.


"I'm opposed to discrimination of any kind," he said. "And when you're going to enter into a contract with a federal vendor, I don't think you should be entering into a contract with a vendor who discriminates."


In a recent subcommittee session, Costello cast the lone GOP vote in favor of updating Veterans Affairs rules to reflect that same-sex spouses of veterans are eligible for the same benefits as opposite-sex spouses. That's already dictated by federal policy.


But Costello said it's important the law's language reflect practice and is not discriminatory.


Meehan was not available for comment.


Contact Liam Migdail-Smith: 610-371-5022 or