State lawmakers on Tuesday heard an avalanche of support for a bill that would call on voters to amend the state’s constitution to explicitly prohibit discrimination based on an individual’s sex.
No explicit prohibition of sex discrimination is contained in US or state constitutions, although anti-discrimination laws have been enacted at both the federal and state levels.
Supporters introduced the proposed amendment, which is expected to be approved by voters before it goes into effect, as long overdue and necessary to ensure future lawmakers do not overturn existing anti-discrimination laws. Opponents, however, argued that the amendment would lead to a host of unintended consequences, ranging from mixed bathrooms and dorms to a constitutional right to taxpayer-funded abortions.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Lois Reckitt, D-South Portland, has been advocating for constitutional amendments at the federal and state levels for about 50 years. Reckitt recalled how the effort nearly won the two-thirds support needed to put the amendment ahead of voters in Maine, falling to six votes in 2017 and two in 2019.
Reckitt kicked off the nearly 3.5-hour court hearing by reading testimony submitted by a 7-year-old girl named Zoey from the Old Town, who urged the passage to “help girls grow up and be cherished as much as the boys ”.
The committee received 186 written comments, mostly in support of the proposal. He will hold a working session in the coming weeks before voting if he wishes to recommend it to the entire legislature.
Maine ratified the Federal Equal Rights Amendment in 1974, but the move to enshrine it in the United States Constitution received support from only 35 states – less than the 38 required for a majority three quarters.
Since then, lawmakers have made several attempts to change the state’s constitution, without success. As it backs down by two votes in 2019, the fate of the bill is far from certain this year. Republicans have won about eight seats in the House since the last vote, and any debate this year will be steeped in election year politics, with all legislative seats and the governor’s office being elected.
At Tuesday’s hearing, a virtual procession of elected Democrats and state officials, including Governor Janet Mills, Secretary of State Shenna Bellows and Attorney General Aaron Frey, testified in favor of the sending amendment to voters, arguing that there is a need to address gaps in current anti-discrimination laws, including employment, wages, domestic violence and violence against women.
Mills noted that the state’s constitution has been amended 174 times in the past 187 years, including the addition of a constitutional right to food that was approved by voters last year. Other amendments, she noted, included the preservation of the right to own and bear arms, the right to veto the budget, the repeal of the voting tax, and the adoption and then repeal of the ban on alcohol.
TESTIMONY OF MILLS
“I ask you if any of these 174 measures is more important than granting equal rights and protections to our citizens, regardless of their gender? Mills said, urging lawmakers to give voters the opportunity to join 26 other states in amending their constitutions.
“While our state and nation have undoubtedly made great strides in implementing equal rights for women and men, this change has been piecemeal, intermittent and impermanent,” Mills added. “And these laws, which only cover discrimination in specific areas – employment, housing, credit, public housing and education – are ephemeral, subject to repeal or change at the whim of a legislature. or a particular initiative. “
Barbara Cray, lawyer and filmmaker, said a constitutional amendment was needed more than ever today, alluding to the rise of far-right groups like the Proud Boys, who openly pursue a chauvinist society and are ready to resort to violence to achieve it.
“The constitutional protection of women in our state is all the more necessary because our democracy is so publicly contested,” Cray said.
But the few opponents who testified worried about the unintended consequences of passing such an amendment, especially on churches and religious freedoms.
Representative Sue Bernard, R-Caribou, read the testimony in opposition from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland.
The diocese argued that women deserve equal rights under the law, but are fundamentally different from men because they can have children. The diocese is concerned that the amendment will be used to legalize abortion as a constitutional right.
Bernard, a former spokesperson for the diocese, added that the amendment could threaten the tax-exempt status of churches that have male-only clergy policies and would generally prohibit any distinction between men and women, which would have an impact on a wide range of things.
“The Maine ERA would end boys and girls only sports, including contact sports,” Bernard said. “It would endanger privacy and security. Traditional bathrooms for men and women, changing rooms, hospital rooms and nursing home rooms, etc. would be abolished. … It would seriously jeopardize the privacy of our children, our elderly and our hospital patients.
FULL PROTECTION NEEDED
But Amy Sneirson, executive director of the Maine Human Rights Commission, said the “parade of horrors” was largely based on fear. She argued that current anti-discrimination laws only cover “separate areas” of a woman’s life and that an amendment is needed to provide full protection.
“Outside of these delimited parameters, the default is that sex discrimination remains legal,” she said. “The constitution was created for men by men. The flaw is that discrimination that is not prohibited is legal.
For most supporters, a constitutional amendment is long overdue.
Posie Cowan, a Brookville resident and founder of Equal Rights Maine, said she represents the fourth generation in her family to fight for the Equal Rights Amendment. She said her great-grandmother started advocating for her rights in 1923.
“That was almost 100 years ago,” Cowan said. “I don’t want my daughter and granddaughters fighting for equal rights in 50 or 80 years.
Young Mainers, meanwhile, expressed disbelief that equal rights for women was not already enshrined in the constitution.
“As a young woman in today’s world, it seems incredible to me that we are even discussing this amendment, even debating whether or not someone’s gender determines their worth,” said Natalie Emmerson, a 16-year-old student activist at Lycée Morse. “This bill is simply a moral issue of equal rights. Either you believe it or you don’t and your vote will represent that belief. “
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