AUGUSTA — The Legislature’s Judiciary Committee passed a bill Tuesday that would give voters a chance to change Maine’s Constitution to make it clear that discrimination based on gender is illegal.

The proposal to adopt a state Equal Rights Amendment was approved on a 9-2 vote. Two members who were absent will have 24 hours to cast their votes.

Maine voters ratified an amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1974 making it illegal to discriminate against a person based on gender under federal law, but that measure never garnered the support it needed – approval by  three-quarters of all states, or 38, to go into effect nationwide before the amendment expired in 1982.

But supporters have never given up, and Nevada and Illinois recently joined the 35 states that originally passed the ERA, leaving the amendment one state shy of the 38 needed for the three-fourths majority needed for it to become part of the U.S. Constitution. Should that happen, Congress also would have to repeal or overrule the 1982 deadline, which advocates say is possible because the 27th Amendment was ratified in 1992 – more than 200 years after it was approved by Congress.

Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Utah and Virginia are the states that never ratified the ERA.

Regardless of whether the amendment becomes part of U.S. law, Rep. Lois Reckitt, D-South Portland, and Sen. Eloise Vitelli, D-Arrowsic, want to make sure it is enshrined in the Maine Constitution. That would require a two-thirds majority in both chambers of the Legislature and approval by a simple majority of voters.

Sen. Lisa Keim, R-Dixfield, said she voted against the measure because she believes equal rights are already enshrined in the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and the state amendment is unnecessary.

“We are all served equally under the law,” Keim said.

Keim is opposed to taxpayer-funded abortion and believes the amendment could be used to make a legal argument for that to happen in Maine.

Reckitt, one of the bill’s sponsors, expressed disappointment that no Republicans on the committee supported the measure on Tuesday. She said getting to a two-thirds majority, especially in the Maine House, now will be more challenging.

“If we lose in the House it will be by two or three votes,” she said. “It’s just very frustrating, I don’t see what they are afraid of in letting the populace vote on this.”

The bill next moves to the House of Representatives for consideration.

Scott Thistle can be contacted at 791-6330 or at:
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