The forces of fear and prejudice won a victory in Congress last week, and Maine U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin was there to lend them a hand.

The 2nd District congressman was one of seven Republicans who changed their votes at the last minute in the face of ferocious whipping by Republican leadership, allowing a bipartisan nondiscrimination amendment to fail by a single vote.

Poliquin did not distinguish himself or Maine with that vote, and the chant of “shame, shame, shame” that rang out in the House chamber Thursday was the right verdict.

The amendment sponsored by Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, D-N.Y., would have prohibited contractors who receive public money under a new National Defense Authorization Act from discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. That has been federal practice for the last two years, since President Obama issued an executive order, and an identical amendment was part of the highway bill that passed the House last year.

But the defense spending bill was altered with an amendment that created a broad exemption from the civil rights requirements for corporations and associations that have religious objections.

Without Maloney’s amendment, defense contractors would be able to fire or refuse to hire people just for being gay or transgender, and still profit from doing business with the government. Poliquin issued a statement saying that he was outraged that his vote could be interpreted to mean that he would promote discrimination or that he had succumbed to political pressure. He claimed that the religious exemption was narrowly tailored for religious institutions – as if churches bid for contracts from the Department of Defense.

He should know better. Maine voters passed civil rights protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity a decade ago, and Poliquin should have been able to reassure his Republican colleagues that it has not prevented Mainers from practicing their religion. In the years before the referendum passed, Maine went through the same kind of angry debate that is now roiling places like North Carolina. But after nondiscrimination became the legal standard, our state did not fall apart. The only change was that people had the peace of mind that comes with knowing that you can’t be mistreated based on the fact that you are different from the majority.

In his news release, Poliquin said that he “abhor(s) discrimination in any form and at any place,” but that was not how he acted when he had a chance to do something about it in the House last week. Instead of speaking out in favor of equal treatment under the law and standing firm on an important vote, Poliquin caved.

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