Democrats’ equal rights bill may expand in hopes of gaining GOP support

AUGUSTA, Maine — The Democrat leading a third charge to enshrine anti-discrimination protections in Maine’s Constitution could expand her bill in a bid to win Republican support, but that might not be enough to win the votes it needs.

The change, which is led by Rep. Lois Reckitt, D-South Portland, has been a priority for Democrats for years and has the support of Gov. Janet Mills, who in a rare move testified among hundreds of others last week. Reckitt narrowly failed to win the two-thirds majorities in both chambers required to send the measure to the polls in 2019.

The bill hasn’t changed since Reckitt’s first attempt in 2017. It seeks to solidify protections under Maine’s human rights law against gender-based discrimination by integrating them into the Maine Constitution so lawmakers can’t just change the law later.

But Reckitt can now attempt to add all protected classes, including gender identity, disability, religion, age and several others, to the measure in a bid to gain broader support. It’s not yet clear whether that would move enough Republicans, with two opponents expressing skepticism of the proposed changes on Monday after the Democratic lawmaker kicked it off.

“I’m a little annoyed that to incorporate gender discrimination we had to add the world,” Reckitt said. “But the world also deserves to be protected.”

Reckitt said she plans to focus more on the Democratic element of the bill, saying it’s time to allow voters a say in the matter. She said passing the bill could still be a climb, adding that she was confused by the continued opposition to the bill.

Federal civil rights laws already prohibit discrimination based on sex. Maine and most other states have similar protections. Parts of the US Constitution have also been extended to apply to women. Reckitt’s bill is effectively an attempt to supplant the Equal Rights Amendment, a 1972 effort passed by the US Senate and sent to states for ratification. Maine was one of 34 states to ratify the law in 1975, but support fell short of a deadline amid conservative resistance.

Opponents at last week’s hearing on the bill included the Evangelical Christian Civic League of Maine, which argued that the bill would lead to entrenching the right to abortion in the constitution.

In 2019, House Republicans voted in unison against the measure, blocking majority Democrats from the two-thirds vote they needed. House Democrats also have a narrower 82-65 majority over Republicans after losing seats in the 2020 election.

Expanding Reckitt’s measure may increase conservative opposition. Representative Beth O’Connor, R-Berwick, argued that the US Constitution already grants equal rights and anything further would amount to singling out a group for “special rights”. She said she didn’t know of any Republicans who would support the bill in the lower house.

“What we need are people who are nicer to each other,” she said.

Reckitt’s measure reached the two-thirds threshold in the Senate in 2019, where five Republicans backed it. One of them, Kim Rosen of Bucksport, said she would continue to support the bill, noting that she did not understand the resistance to it.

“I think everyone’s rights should be protected and I totally agree,” Rosen said.

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