AUGUSTA, Maine — The Democrat leading a third charge to enshrine anti-discrimination protections in the Maine Constitution may broaden her bill in an attempt to win support from Republicans, but it may not be enough to win the votes she needs.
The change, which is spearheaded by Rep. Lois Reckitt, D-South Portland, has been a priority of 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 ballot in 2019.
The bill has not changed since Reckitt’s first attempt in 2017. It is focused on cementing protections under the Maine Human Rights Act against sex-based discrimination by moving them into the Maine Constitution so lawmakers could not simply change the law later.
But Reckitt may now attempt to add all protected classes, including gender identity, disability, religion, age and several others, to the measure in an attempt to gain wider support. It is not yet clear whether that would move enough Republicans, with two opponents indicating skepticism of the proposed changes on Monday after the Democratic lawmaker floated it.
“I’m a little annoyed that in order to get sex discrimination in, we have to add the world in,” Reckitt said. “But the world is also worthy of protection.”
Reckitt said she plans to focus more on the democratic element of the bill, saying it is time to allow voters to have their say on the issue. She said passing the bill still may be an upward climb, adding that she was confused by lingering opposition to the bill.
Federal civil rights laws already bar sex-based discrimination. Maine and most other states have similar protections. Parts of the U.S. Constitution have also been extended to pertain to women. Reckitt’s bill is effectively an attempt to supplant the Equal Rights Amendment, a 1972 effort passed by the U.S. Senate and sent to states for ratification. Maine was one of 34 states to ratify the law by 1975, but support fell short of a deadline amid conservative resistance.
Opponents in last week’s hearing on the bill included the evangelical Christian Civic League of Maine, which argued the bill would lead to abortion rights being enshrined in the constitution.
In 2019, House Republicans voted in lockstep against the measure, blocking majority Democrats from the two-thirds vote they needed. House Democrats also have a slimmer 82-65 majority over Republicans after losing seats in the 2020 election.
Broadening Reckitt’s measure may heighten conservative opposition. Rep. Beth O’Connor, R-Berwick, contended that the U.S. Constitution already grants equal rights and that anything further would be singling a group out for “special rights.” She said she did not know any Republicans who would support the bill in the lower chamber.
“What we need is people who are nicer to each other,” she said.
Reckitt’s measure did reach 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 she did not understand resistance to it.
“I feel everyone’s rights should be protected and I’m all for that,” Rosen said.