AUGUSTA — A Republican state senator is withdrawing his so-called religious freedom bill, a proposal similar to legislation that has sparked controversy, protests and threats of boycotts in Indiana and other states.

Sen. David Burns, R-Whiting, announced Wednesday that he was abandoning the proposal, saying in a news release that the anticipated backlash and protests would prevent the bill from getting a fair hearing in Augusta. Supporters of religious freedom legislation claim the laws protect against government infringement on religion, but opponents contend they open the door to discrimination.

“Opponents of this bill and some in the media have poisoned the well of public discussion,” Burns said in a written statement. “They have been guided by an unwillingness to discuss factual information and inaccurate comparisons to the events in Indiana.”

Burns said he will withdraw the bill once it reaches committee. His decision came one day after the text of the proposal was made public, along with a list of co-sponsors that featured the Republican leadership in the Senate.

Withdrawal of the bill shows how the politics of religious freedom legislation have tilted in favor of lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender activist groups, as well as Democrats, who have used the proposals to paint their Republican backers as supporting discrimination.

“The issues surrounding this bill should not be about the sponsor or the faith preferences of individual legislators,” Burns said. “Yet it has become increasingly portrayed as such.”


Elise Johansen, executive director of EqualityMaine, a group that led the drive to legalize same-sex marriage in Maine, said in a written statement that when people study such laws, they realize they are bad for business and conducive to discrimination.

“That’s what happened in Indiana in March, last year in Arizona, and it’s what’s happening right now in Maine,” she said. “We’ll continue to be watchful for any legislation that could undermine Maine’s Human Rights Act, or that would undermine the hard-fought victories of our community.”


Democratic House Majority Leader Jeff McCabe of Skowhegan expressed relief that Burns is withdrawing the bill.

“Maine people reject discrimination and hate,” he said in a written statement. “We believe in the inherent dignity of all people, whatever their background, faith, sexual orientation or gender. This bill would have undermined those values we as Mainers share.”

LGBT activists had said in recent weeks that they were gearing up for protests in Maine similar to those that unfolded after Arkansas and Indiana passed religious freedom laws. The proposals in those states generated fierce backlash and boycotts from activists. Business groups later lobbied Republican governors and legislatures to change the states’ nascent laws to ensure they didn’t allow businesses to discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered individuals.


In Maine, about 20 United Church of Christ pastors converged on the State House with plans to protest the bill Wednesday, but disbanded when they learned that the measure had been withdrawn.

On Tuesday, Peter Gore, vice president for the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, said members of the organization were watching Burns’ bill “very, very closely” and that the proposal “has obvious concerns for us.”


Burns’ bill is nearly identical to a proposal he sponsored last year that was defeated mostly along party lines. Since then, however, the debate over such legislation has intensified.

In 16 states this year, legislation has been introduced to create or alter a state religious freedom law, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The group’s website says 21 states already have some version of a religious freedom law modeled after a 1993 federal law titled the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Supporters contend the state laws are necessary to protect against government overreach into individuals’ religious lives.

At least 14 of the 16 states considering the initiatives are states in which same-sex marriage has been made legal in the past three years, either through referendum or a court action overturning a ban. Maine voters legalized same-sex marriage in 2012.

The resurgence of the state religious freedom legislation also follows last year’s U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing the company Hobby Lobby to not offer employees coverage for some contraceptives through the company’s health insurance plan. In a 5-4 ruling that applied to corporations run by religious families, justices said the coverage mandated under the Affordable Care Act violated the federal religious freedom law.

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