A legislative committee voted 7-5 Thursday in support of an equal rights amendment to the state Constitution that would prohibit discrimination based on gender.

But the unified opposition by the Judiciary Committee’s five Republican members signals that the proposal faces an uphill battle in the House and Senate, where two-thirds of members must support the measure for it to be placed before Maine voters.

The proposal fell two votes shy of that two-thirds threshold in 2019. Since then, Republicans have gained about eight seats in the House, and any debate this year will be infused with election-year politics, with all of the legislative seats and the governor’s office up for election.

The sponsor, Rep. Lois Reckitt, D-South Portland, who has been advocating for such an amendment for 50 years, said voters deserve the opportunity to decide whether to add the amendment to the state Constitution. She noted that voters narrowly rejected the proposal in 1985.

“The world has changed. I think it’s time to give voters another chance to consider this question,” Reckitt said. “I believe this amendment is long overdue.”

Two committee members – Rep. Heather Sanborn, D-Portland, and Rep. Rena Newell of the Passamaquoddy Tribe – were absent for the vote.

Advertisement

An explicit prohibition on sex discrimination is not contained in either the U.S. or state constitution, although anti-discrimination laws have been passed both federally and at the state level. Twenty six states have added equal rights amendments to their constitutions.

There was no debate among members of the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee before the vote Thursday. But the proposal drew robust public testimony, both in writing and in person. The committee received nearly 200 written comments and a public hearing last week included 3½ hours of testimony.

Proponents, including Gov. Janet Mills, Secretary of State Shenna Bellows and Attorney General Aaron Frey, framed the proposed amendment as necessary to ensure future lawmakers don’t roll back existing anti-discrimination laws and to cover areas that are not currently addressed by statute, including employment, wages, domestic violence and violence against women.

Opponents, however, argued that the amendment would lead to a host of unintended consequences, ranging from mixed-gender bathrooms and dormitories to a constitutional right to taxpayer-funded abortions.

Maine ratified the federal Equal Rights Amendment in 1974, but the movement to enshrine it into the U.S. Constitution received support from only 35 states – shy of the 38 required for a three-quarters majority.

Since then, lawmakers have tried repeatedly to amend the state constitution, without success.

Reckitt said she considered amending the language also to include people who identify as LGBTQ and others, but she believes current draft language would cover them.

“I have no intent to exclude Maine’s LGBTQ community from rights that I believe will be protected by the proposed amendment,” she said.

Related Headlines


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: