February 21

Maine House follows Senate in rejecting ‘religious freedom’ bill

The bill sought to affirm constitutional protection for the right to worship, but opponents say it was unneeded and would open the door to legal discrimination.

By Eric Russell erussell@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA — After a long, spirited debate Thursday, the House of Representatives rejected a bill designed to affirm constitutional protection of a person’s right to worship.

The 89-52 vote fell along party lines, with Democrats opposing the Republican-sponsored bill. The 19-16 vote in the Senate on Tuesday was similarly partisan.

The main provision of L.D. 1428, sponsored by Sen. David Burns, R-Whiting, was that no state law could infringe on a person’s exercise of religion unless that law constituted a “compelling state interest.”

Burns said his bill, modeled after similar legislation passed in 18 states, would bring Maine closer to the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, signed in 1993 by President Bill Clinton. That law followed a Supreme Court case that some felt unraveled religious protections outlined in the First Amendment.

“Freedom of religion is the basis this country was founded on,” said Rep. Michael McClellan, R-Raymond, during House debate on the bill Thursday. “People say we (already) have the protection. I’m not sure that’s true.”

Opponents said the bill was unnecessary and would almost certainly lead to a flood of legal cases from people claiming that a rule or law infringed on their ability to worship. Some Democrats said the bill was a direct response to Maine’s same-sex marriage law because it would give wedding vendors a legal basis for refusing to do business with gay couples.

Rep. Andrew McLean, D-Gorham, who married his partner last summer, said the bill would undermine protections outlined in Maine’s Human Rights Act. “It would give the ability to discriminate against anyone if it violates their religious beliefs.”

Other critics said the bill would negate a provision in the federal Affordable Care Act that requires insurance companies to cover contraception.

The bill had support from several religious groups, including the Christian Civic League of Maine, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland and the Maine Right to Life Committee.

Many other groups opposed the bill, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, EqualityMaine, the Maine Medical Association and the Maine Women’s Lobby.

Assistant House Minority Leader Alex Willette, R-Mapleton, said opponents had it wrong.

“It’s a straightforward bill. It does not create any new rights. It does not allow religious people to get away with anything they want,” Willette said. “Opponents have muddied the discussion of this bill ... with hypotheticals.”

Rep. Justin Chenette, D-Saco, who is gay, said the bill offended him. “It makes me feel like a second-class citizen,” he said.

Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at:

erussell@pressherald.com

Twitter: @PPHEricRussell

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