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Lawmaker denounced after saying Lewiston mass shooting was God's punishment for abortion law

A make-shift memorial lines Main Street, Nov. 3, 2023, in Lewiston, Maine.
Matt York
AP file
A make-shift memorial lines Main Street, Nov. 3, 2023, in Lewiston, Maine.

A Republican lawmaker from central Maine sparked outrage late Wednesday when he suggested that the mass shooting in Lewiston was God's punishment on Maine for expanding access to abortion.

Rep. Michael Lemelin of Chelsea had already drawn objections for suggesting that a bill dealing with abortion and transgender care with was evil and influenced by the devil. But Lemelin shocked many in the House chamber when he said recent damaging storms and the Oct. 25 mass shooting that left 18 dead were God's response to a new law lifting restrictions on abortions performed later in a pregnancy.

"Keep in mind that law came into effect on Oct. 25," Lemelin said. "God heard you and the horrible events of Oct. 25 happened."

Lemelin made the comments roughly two hours into an emotional debate over a bill, LD 227, that aims to protect medical professionals who care for patients that travel to Maine for abortions or gender-affirming care. While roughly half of states nationwide have restricted access to abortion and transgender care since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in 2022, more than a dozen left-leaning states have passed so-called "shield laws" to protect health care providers.

The comments drew immediate and strong objections on the House floor. After conferring with other legislative leaders and the House clerk, Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, ruled Lemelin out of order for violating the decorum of the House chamber.

She also issued a warning to the lawmaker, a conservative firebrand who downplayed the seriousness of the COVID-19 pandemic and has repeatedly called climate change "a hoax."

"The chair finds if the member continues to make comments in this manner, the member will continue to be out of order and additional steps will be taken," Talbot Ross said.

One other lawmaker, Republican Rep. Shelley Rudnicki of Fairfield, defended Lemelin by telling her House colleagues she agreed with everything he said. But multiple lawmakers from both sides of the aisle condemned the comments.

Rep. Rachel Henderson, R-Rumford, opposed the bill and said she was angry that it passed the Democratic-controlled House. But Henderson denounced Lemelin's fire-and-brimstone rhetoric, saying it was contrary to her own deeply held religious beliefs about the mercy of God.

"Tonight, I am not proud to be a Republican," Henderson said on the House floor. "I am not proud to have an R in front of my name. It was reprehensible. And if anyone in this body or under the sound of my voice ever wants to feel the love of God, you can come speak to me. I will not condemn you. He did not condemn me."

Rep. Kristen Cloutier, a Lewiston Democrat who serves as assistant House majority leader, called Lemelin's comment and Rudnicki's affirmation of them "as asinine as they are reprehensible."

"We are dismayed by this stunning lack of respect, deeply troubling absence of empathy and infuriating disregard for the victims, their families and everyone in our community whose hearts remain shattered by this horrific act of senseless violence," Cloutier said in a statement late Wednesday night. "I know that I speak for the entire Lewiston House delegation in saying that these sentiments have absolutely no place in this chamber or in our public discourse and should be universally condemned by anyone who has even an ounce of basic human decency.”

The incident heightened the tensions in a chamber already tired and on edge after a long debate on one of the most controversial issues of the 2024 session. The House voted 80-70 largely along party lines to advance the bill, sending it to the Senate for consideration.

Supporters have said the bill is needed because officials from states that restrict access to abortions and gender-affirming care have threatened to go after health care providers outside of their borders if they care for residents of those states. The Texas attorney general's office, for instance, has sought to compel a hospital in Seattle and a Georgia health clinic to hand over records about Texas residents who received care at those facilities.

"Seventeen states have passed very similar shield laws for reproductive health care and 11 have passed shield laws for gender-affirming care," said Rep. Sally Cluchey, D-Bowdoinham. "We owe it to our constituents to protect Maine's health care infrastructure, our providers and legal health care access."

But opponents predicted the law would infringe on the rights of parents in other states and could enable kidnapping or even child trafficking. They also reiterated concerns raised by law enforcement officials in Maine that the proposal could prohibit them from assisting police in other states investigating criminal activity.

"It is no exaggeration that if the provisions of this bill take effect, it would make it easier for traffickers to find safe haven here in Maine," Rep. Josh Morris, R-Turner, said early in the debate on Wednesday. "It's no wonder that the Maine Sheriff's Association and 16 states' attorneys general have opposed this bill."

But supporters disputed that, saying those would still be criminal offenses under existing law.

Last year, Democrats in the Legislature passed a new law that allows 16- and 17-year-old transgender youth to receive hormone therapy and some other types of gender-affirming care without a parent's consent but only if certain conditions are met. Minors are not allowed receive gender-affirming surgical interventions in Maine without parental consent, however.

However, opponents of LD 227 pointed out that multiple European countries — most recently the United Kingdom — have severely restricted minors' access to gender-affirming care. They also strongly accused bill backers of a lack of transparency because the way the bill was released and the short notice for the public hearing.

The proposal has also garnered national attention. In a highly unusual move, 16 attorneys general from conservative states sent a letter to legislative leaders as well as Gov. Janet Mills and Attorney General Aaron Frey threatening legal action if the bill becomes a law. The AGs appeared most concerned about a provision that would allow medical professionals to counter-sue officials in other states who investigate them.

Frey responded by accusing his conservative counterparts of attempting to intimidate bill supporters and interfering in policy decisions within Maine.

"This is not unprecedented, as at least 17 states and the District of Columbia have already enacted similar 'shield laws' to protect their health care providers from aggressive actions by objecting states," Frey wrote. "Our Republic endures. Unfortunately, shield laws have become necessary due to efforts in some objecting states to punish beyond their borders lawful behavior that occurs in Maine and other states."