AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage signed on to a brief filed Wednesday in a federal court seeking to restore a Mississippi “religious freedom” law struck down by a court last year as discriminatory to the LGBT population.
It’s the third time in a year that LePage — who runs a state that voted for same-sex marriage in 2012 and added protections for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people to the Maine Civil Rights Act in 2005 — has backed out-of-state Republicans in fights over rights provisions.
This time, he’s joining seven other states to back Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant, who signed a bill earlier this year allowing public employees to refuse marriage licenses to same-sex couples and shielded companies and religious groups from punishment if denying services to LGBT people.
LePage is acting as an individual, not on behalf of the state of Maine.
Supporters of the bill say it protects religious freedom for those who don’t believe in same-sex marriage, but the LGBT-rights Human Rights Campaign has said it “enables almost any individual or organization” to discriminate against the population.
A U.S. District Court judge struck down the law as discriminatory in June, before it was implemented. It’s now before a federal appeals court. LePage is an individual party to the suit led by Texas because Maine Attorney General Janet Mills, a Democrat, must represent the state in court.
LePage representatives didn’t respond to a request seeking comment on Friday, but Matthew Moonen, executive director of EqualityMaine, an LGBT-rights group, said “Maine voters have been very clear that they don’t support discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.”
Though LePage is an outspoken social conservative, social issues haven’t been a big part of his six-year tenure as governor. Sen. David Burns, R-Whiting, proposed a religious freedom bill in 2015, but he withdrew it after facing sharp criticism.
But in court, LePage lined up in December 2015 against a Virginia transgender boy’s challenge of his school’s bathroom-use policy in a case that the U.S. Supreme Court announced last week that it will decide, and in May against President Barack Obama’s administration’s guidance that transgender students should be allowed to use the bathroom of their choice.
In Maine, that also is a settled issue: The Maine Supreme Judicial Court in 2014 ruled in favor of Nicole Maines in a lawsuit against the Orono school district, guaranteeing transgender students here the right to use school bathrooms corresponding to their identified gender.
Maine’s LGBT civil rights protections are being targeted in a referendum effort by fringe conservative Michael Heath, the former head of the Christian Civic League of Maine who has been disavowed by the group’s current leadership. In April, he won approval to circulate petitions to place the issue on a future ballot.