AUGUSTA, Maine — A transgendered woman is denied the use of the ladies room in a chain restaurant in Auburn.
The two cases, which have sparked lawsuits in Superior Court, moved into Maine’s legislative arena Tuesday. The Judiciary Committee took up a bill to let businesses, schools and other agencies off the legal hook if they make their own decisions on who should use their restrooms and showers.
Simply put, Rep. Ken Fredette’s bill says that if you are a biological male, you must use men’s facilities, and biological females must use female facilities.
The bill would bar the state Human Rights Commission from making findings of unlawful discrimination when transgendered people are not allowed to use a bathroom, shower room, locker room or other public accommodation “which they choose based on their gender identity and not their biological sex,” said Fredette, R-Newport.
It also permits schools, colleges and private businesses “to establish bathrooms based on biological sex and to not be sued in Superior Court for simply doing that,” Fredette told the committee at a hearing that drew an overflow crowd to the State House.
A former member of the Human Rights Commission, Fredette said he was prompted to submit the bill after the commission ruled that discrimination had occurred in the Denny’s restaurant case in Auburn, and in the Orono Middle School case. Fredette opposed both decisions.
“By putting the decision-making back into the hands of local school administrators and business people, we are freeing the creative abilities of the problem solvers that are closest to the challenges that face them,” said Carroll Conley, executive director of the Christian Civic League of Maine. “In other words, we are returning a measure of common sense to the civil rights formula here in Maine.”
Gov. Paul LePage also supports the bill. LePage legal counsel Dan Billings said that while the governor does not view the matter as a moral issue, conflicts like those in Orono and Auburn “have created uncertainty for businesses … it has really put businesses in a bad position.”
But passage of Fredette’s bill would also gut protections from discrimination based in sexual orientation that were put in place in the Maine Human Rights Act in 2005, said Jennifer Levi, transgender rights project director for Gay & Lesbian Advocates and Defenders.
“This is a repeal bill. This bill is a solution looking for a problem,” said Levi. In addition, passage would lead to a “litigation nightmare for businesses and schools,” Levi said.
Max Katler of Whitefield, who identified himself as transgendered, said the bill would create new problems for people like him.
“Until today, I have never had a problem using a public restroom, have never gotten so much as a dirty look,” Katler told the committee with a choking voice. “That would all change under this bill. Every day, whenever I was involved in public or civic life, like attending this hearing, I would be subject to public inquiry invading the most private aspects of my life.”