If you were trying to anticipate which issues would generate the most heat in Augusta this year, equal rights for women probably didn’t make the list.

We just had an election in the “Year of the Woman,” which not only elected our first woman governor but also sent 12 women to the 35-member Senate and 60 to the 151-member House, which selected Rep. Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, to a second term as speaker.

But when a resolution to expressly prohibit sex-based discrimination in the state constitution came up for a vote in the House last week, it fell seven votes short of the two-thirds it would need to go out to the voters. Not only did it fail, but it failed on a party-line vote, with every single Democrat present voting “yes” and every Republican voting “no.”

Since when did equal rights for women become a partisan issue? It wasn’t in 1974, when Republicans controlled both the House and Senate but still ratified the federal Equal Rights Amendment, which did not pass in enough other states to become part of the U.S. Constitution. Some of the most successful politicians in recent Maine history have been Republican women, notably Sen. Susan Collins, who could run next year for what would be an unprecedented fifth term.

But clearly, times have changed, and the state ERA vote is a sign. The arguments that carried the day – or at least were strong enough to block progress – came from the Christian Civic League of Maine and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland. Both raised the same red flag: abortion. And that was enough to get all of the Republicans in line.

The argument from the religious groups goes like this: Equal rights for women is fine, but including this language in the state constitution has been used in other states to argue for public funding of reproductive health services up to and including abortion. The Christian Civic League also warned that passage could “grant legal rights to people on the basis of ‘sexual orientation’ and ‘gender identity,’ which would then threaten religious liberty and conscience protections.”

With those potential risks, equal pay, discrimination in the workplace and sexual harassment took a back seat.

The resolution still has to go to the Maine Senate and will come back for a final vote in the House, but we shouldn’t be surprised if the partisan split holds. Abortion and LGBT rights are still hot-button, culture war issues that break down along party lines.

When you compare Maine, where the Democrats have unified control of the House, Senate and governorship, to states that have Republican “trifectas,” you can really see the difference.

Maine’s House and Senate have both passed a bill that would allow the state’s Medicaid program to pay for abortions for low-income women. The Maine Legislature also is considering a proposal that would allow specially trained nurse practitioners to administer nonsurgical abortions without a doctor present. And it is considering a bill that would let morning-after pills be sold in vending machines on college campuses.

Meanwhile, Alabama, with unified Republican control, is the latest to pass a strict anti-abortion law that is designed to challenge the Supreme Court to change the law. Alabama would outlaw virtually all abortions, even in cases of rape or incest, and would throw providers who violate it in prison.

These state’s know that the Trump administration and Republican Senate have filled the federal judiciary with judges recruited and approved by anti-abortion legal activists, including two members of the U.S. Supreme Court, justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh. Both got Maine Sen. Collins’ support after telling her that they would be bound by legal precedent to uphold the landmark Roe v. Wade decision, but considering the number of states that have passed different kinds of abortion restrictions over the last year, it’s clear that they will have options to chip away at its protections without technically breaking their promise.

They don’t have to outlaw abortion to make it inaccessible for some women, especially poor women, who don’t have the time ormoney to travel long distances or jump through regulatory hoops that lawmakers want to set up.

In Maine, large Democratic majorities mean that abortion rights are safe, at least for now. It appears that access can even be expanded if it’s done by statute that only require a majority vote.

But when it comes to an issue that needs some Republican buy-in, Democrats should not expect any help.

In the year after the Year of the Woman, partisan lines have been drawn in places that you might not have expected.

Greg Kesich is the editorial page editor. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]

Twitter: gregkesich

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