May 23, 2018
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Maine’s ‘religious freedom’ vote shouldn’t have been along party lines: Why I hope Republicans will reconsider

By Stacey Fitts, Special to the BDN

As a Republican, I was disappointed to see that so few of my like-minded friends in the Legislature recently decided to stand up against LD 1428, An Act to Protect Religious Freedom, and lend their vote to stopping this harmful law.

During my eight years in the Maine House of Representatives, I observed how my colleagues — in both parties — worked hard to serve the needs of their districts and our state. This law wouldn’t have served anyone, and that’s why I was so saddened to see this become a party-line vote.

The Republican party — my party — is the party of constitutional freedoms and limited government, not discrimination. In Arizona, there was strong opposition, including from leading Republicans like U.S. Sens. Jeff Flake and John McCain, to a bill that was frighteningly similar to the proposal we saw defeated in Maine last month. Ultimately, it was Gov. Jan Brewer, another Republican, whose veto pen stopped this measure once and for all.

I am not writing to chide my fellow Republicans, but because I know firsthand that it is possible — even necessary — to consider and reconsider the votes we’ve taken and whether they were really true to our beliefs.

In 2009, I took a very difficult vote against allowing loving, committed same-sex couples to have the freedom to marry. I regret that vote to this day, but I am fortunate to have had the opportunity to speak out in 2012 and help organize people from every party to support our citizen’s initiative that brought marriage to all families in Maine.

I hope my Republican friends will similarly reconsider their votes on bills like LD 1428. This is especially important, as we are likely to see similar efforts in the future as part of a national effort by groups who are motivated not by a desire to protect religious freedom — which is a vital right in our nation — but by a desire to create a means for discrimination against gay and lesbian people and their families.

In Maine, we already have strong protections for religious freedom — which were bolstered by the passage of the marriage law in 2012 — as well as robust and effective nondiscrimination protections. Since it was approved by voters in 2005, Maine’s LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination laws have ensured that all people can live in Maine free from discrimination or harassment, including on the basis of their religion.

I would never support a law that hampered the free exercise of religion, and I would be eager to work to pass a law that added any new or necessary protections against discrimination for any Mainer. But LD 1428 wouldn’t have done that. Instead, with the sort of sweeping language we’ve seen in bills like this around the country, it tears a massive hole in Maine law that allows for preemptive lawsuits if someone even thinks his or her religious beliefs might be violated by a Maine law.

That doesn’t sound like small government to me, and it doesn’t sound like it is tackling the important issues our state is facing, from education to job creation to infrastructure improvement.

In Maine, we don’t discriminate against our neighbors — not based on their religion and not based on whom they love. Despite its title, that’s exactly what this bill would have allowed, just like its sister bills in Arizona and other states.

Since the freedom to marry was extended to all loving, committed couples in 2012, there have been no reports of anyone having his or her religious beliefs violated. That’s because in Maine, religious liberty and protection from discrimination have and will continue to coexist.

At the end of the day, LD 1428 is bad public policy. It is a solution in search of a problem and would create an incredibly low standard for potentially endless legal challenges to any Maine law.

This debate likely isn’t over, and legislators will likely be asked to weigh such a measure again. My sincere hope is that when it is, legislators of both parties take a moment to look at what this law would actually do and whether it would be of any real benefit to the people of Maine.

Stacey Fitts is a resident of Pittsfield and a former four term state representative. He serves on the Board of Directors of EqualityMaine, the state’s largest LGBT advocacy organization.


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