Equality is a guiding principle of American democracy, even if we often stumble in its pursuit.
The Declaration of Independence tells us that all men are created equal. But that founding document was written at a time when men could legally own other men and women had no voice in their government — even in a budding democracy.
That inherent conflict of ideals and reality set us on an imperfect, sometimes contradictory path toward equality. And it has required correction from time to time to ensure that all Americans are treated equally under the law.
The 13th Amendment ended slavery and the 14th Amendment established equal protection but did not end racial discrimination. The 19th Amendment secured women the right to vote but did not remove entrenched systemic barriers for women in the workplace, government and society in general.
We built on those significant, if unfinished reforms in 1964 with the Civil Rights Act — enshrining federal protections from descrimination for people on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin. But even that landmark legislation falls short in protecting some groups today.
Because the Civil Rights Act did not include protections based on sexual orientation or gender identity, the LGBTQ community — which often experiences discrimination and intolerance — still has little to no recourse in some states when confronting barriers to housing, education, employment and other critical areas of everyday life.
A 2018 housing study from a researcher at Syracuse University, for example, found that same-sex male couples are less likely to recieve a response to their rental inquires. According to that same study, there were still 28 states as of 2018 that lack housing discrimination protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer individuals.
Thankfully, according to the Human Rights Campaign, Maine and at least 20 other states have incorporated sexual orientation and gender identity into some or all of their anti-descrimination laws, providing protections that the federal government and many other states do not.
Maine added those protections in 2005 by amending the Maine Human Rights Act with LD 1196 from then-Gov. John Baldacci. Fifty-five percent of voters rejected an attempted people’s veto of the bill, sending a message of support to LGBTQ Mainers.
It’s time the rest of the country followed suit.
The good news is that there’s proposed federal legislation, the Equality Act, which would incorporate sexual orientation and gender identity into existing civil rights protections. And even more encouragingly, Maine’s entire congressional delegation supports the bill. But the bad news is, it has almost no chance of becoming law in this Congress.
Matt Moonen, executive director of Equality Maine, told the BDN in an interview that his organization appreciates the support for the bill from all four members of Maine delegation but is realistic about its chances of passing a Republican-led Senate and being signed by President Donald Trump. Moonen, who also serves as the Democratic majority leader in the Maine House of Representatives, remains concerned about more immediate action by the Trump administration, such as the ban on transgender people serving in the military and the appointment of judges with concerning records on LGBTQ rights.
Sen. Susan Collins is the Equality Act’s lone Republican sponsor in the U.S. Senate, with only a handful of Republicans signing on in the U.S. House of Representatives.
“All Americans deserve a fair opportunity to pursue the American dream,” Collins said when the Equality Act was introduced in March. “It is time we ensure that all people are judged on their talents and abilities, and have full access to the services they need and the opportunities they seek.”
Without other Republicans on board, the legislation is much more likely to simply fuel debate in the 2020 election rather than lead to meaningful change, at least in the short term. And that’s a shame, because expanding these protections is a necessary continuation of efforts to make America a place where all people are created, and treated, equally.