Opinion

It’s time for an equal rights amendment, but expect a nasty fight

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It’s long past time that the Maine Legislature sends a state Equal Rights Amendment to voters.

But a word of caution for the supporters — of which I am one: If LD 433, which would amend the state constitution to explicitly prohibit discrimination based on the sex of an individual, appears on the ballot, we will need to run a real campaign to make sure it passes and to protect against divisive and harmful attacks from opponents.

I’m confident that voters support enshrining equal protection under the law for women in the state constitution. And I’m equally confident that opponents of the measure will do everything they can to make the vote about abortion and nondiscrimination protections for transgender people.

And while support for LGBTQ people in Maine has survived at the ballot box before and abortion rights are strongly supported by a majority of people in the state, we could see a campaign of misinformation and division unlike any we’ve seen since the repeal of marriage equality in 2009.

Opponents tipped their hands during testimony about the ERA last week.

Mike McClellan, the policy director for the regressive Christian Civic League of Maine, testified that the ERA has “everything to do with abortion” and would enshrine in the constitution “a right to taxpayer-funded abortions.”

Penny Morrell, the state director for Concerned Women for America of Maine, made a similar argument, while also attacking transgender people and warning that they are a public safety threat just because they want to be able to go about their everyday lives. That’s vile talk.

And the Maine Right to Life Committee, not to be outdone, went so far as to suggest an Equal Rights Amendment would stop courts from ordering men to pay child support.

The Maine Equal Rights Amendment has more than 100 sponsors, including 23 members of the Maine Senate. It needs to receive two-thirds support in both the Maine House and Senate before it can be sent to voters for ratification.

Across the country, we are seeing right-wing groups — finding it difficult to defend President Donald Trump and his antics — looking to issues such as abortion and trans-phobia to fire up their base and motivate conservative voters.

With an ERA on the ballot, we could see those fights come to Maine. As someone who has worked against attacks on transgender people across the country, including in Anchorage and Massachusetts, the rhetoric and the attacks are blood lies and terrible.

If that fight comes to Maine, all people of good faith will be required to rally around our friends and neighbors and stand tall with them against angry, alarmist and hurtful attacks.

An Equal Rights Amendment should — should — win easily if placed on the ballot. But no one should go into an effort to amend the constitution lightly. If you’re a legislator who votes for the ERA or a group who supports its passage, voters will be looking to you to work hard during a statewide ballot campaign.

Gov. Janet Mills testified in favor of the bill, giving passionate testimony in favor of the amendment and making a strong legal case for its passage. She closed with this:

“I cannot wait to accompany the five adult women whom I proudly call my daughters, and my two little granddaughters, to a voting booth in the fall to cast my vote so that they, and their uncles, cousins and friends will be fully protected in our most sacred document and have the equal opportunity under the law that we have all come to expect and demand.”

If LD 433 passes, all of us who support an equal rights amendment need to match that effort and make sure we bring five friends or family members to the polls. And we better be prepared to do a whole lot more.

David Farmer is a public affairs, political and media consultant in Portland, where he lives with his wife and two children. He was senior adviser to Democrat Mike Michaud’s 2014 campaign for governor.

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