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Maine legislature hears public opinion on state equal rights amendment

Bangor Daily News

The Maine Legislature is considering a new amendment to the state's constitution, which would formally ban sex-based discrimination. More than 100 people testified on the bill Tuesday.

State Rep. Lois Galgay Reckitt, D-South Portland, who has been advocating for both a federal and state equal rights amendment for 50 years, is behind the proposal. Her bill would amend the Maine constitution and ban discrimination based on a person’s sex. The legislation is different from a federal effort to add an equal rights amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The Maine legislature voted to ratify such an amendment back in 1974, but a federal ERA isn’t part of the U.S. Constitution.

26 other states have adopted similar equal rights amendments in their own constitutions. Gov. Janet Mills acknowledged some state laws have made progress in banning sex-based discrimination.

“Those changes have been piecemeal, intermittent and impermanent,” Mills said in her testimony before the Judiciary Committee. “Those laws, which cover discrimination only in specific areas like employment, housing, credit, public accommodation, education, they are ephemeral. They're subject to repeal or change at the whim of any particular legislature or initiative.”

The people of Maine have voted 174 times to amend the state's constitution, including last year, when they approved a constitutional right to food.

Maine voters would also have a chance to weigh in on the equal rights amendment, if the bill clears the state's legislature with a two-thirds majority.

Most of those who testified before the committee Tuesday said they support the proposal. But a few expressed opposition, including the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland and several Republican legislators. Sen. Stacey Guerin, R-Penobscot, said she believes the proposal could have unintended consequences on everything from health care laws to women's sports.

“Women do not need an ERA for equal rights,” Guerin said. “The 14th amendment has successfully been used in cases of discrimination to protect the rights of women and will continue to do so. Instead of passing another law, people simply need to acknowledge the unique nature of women and our skills and accomplishments.”

The Maine Transgender Network said it supports the amendment, but it urged legislators to clarify language banning discrimination based on a person's sex — and include gender identity and sexual orientation as well.

The legislature's judiciary committee will host a work session on the proposal in the coming weeks.