The fight for full LGBT equality needs a big shot in the arm in Washington. I'm proud to live in Maine, where our statewide Human Rights Act is one of the strongest anti-discrimination laws in the country, and I'm running for U.S. Senate this year because it's time for a federal counterpart that protects every American. Discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity has to end.
Passing and then defending our state's strong civil-rights protections wasn't easy, and we learned important lessons in Maine that need to go national. In 2005, as executive director of the ACLU of Maine, I joined a concerted civil-rights campaign to convince the state legislature to expand the Maine Human Rights Act to penalize discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Our law was a landmark because it covered not just employment but housing, credit, public accommodations, and educational opportunity. There was absolutely no reason that LGBTQ Mainers should have faced legalized bigotry or intolerance in those areas of their lives -- or any other.
We were successful, and the expansion passed. The anti-equality movement immediately gathered signatures to put a repeal measure on the ballot. Instead of celebrating our achievement and expanding protections further, we spent much of 2005 fighting the last battle again -- and winning it again.
The important thing we learned in Maine was to aim big and be persistent. Frankly, Congress could benefit from our example. The debate in Congress has focused for too long on weak versions of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which only covers employment decisions and now has such a big religious-exemption loophole that many activists no longer support the bill. As Ian Thompson wrote for Slate in April, the loophole "opens the door for religiously affiliated organizations to engage in employment discrimination against LGBT people -- for any reason."
That's not the stuff big civil-rights advances are made of. I'm proud to say we've done better in Maine, and I'll do better in Washington.
We need a national Human Rights Act along the lines of the Maine Human Rights Act. We need to outlaw discrimination in employment, housing, credit, public accommodations and educational opportunity on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation -- once and for all, nationwide, no exceptions. Sen. Al Franken has done good work on this issue, and I can't wait to join him.
The LGBT community isn't alone in worrying that its Washington allies are aiming too low. Many immigration-reform groups rightly wonder not only why Republicans won't support them but why too many Democrats supported a weaker House bill in this Congress than the one they introduced when they were in the majority. We can't fall victim to lower expectations or lesser ambitions, no matter who controls what branch of government. Good policy is good policy, and fighting the wrong legislative fights won't get us where we need to be.
My opponent, Republican Susan Collins, supports the current, weak version of ENDA with the religious-exemption loophole. She has been conspicuously silent on marriage equality even after Maine voters became the first in the country to approve it through a referendum in 2012. She hasn't shown the leadership that the LGBT community -- in Maine or across the country -- really needs right now. I'm running not just to challenge that lack of leadership but to shake up the status quo on LGBT advocacy in Congress. I hope you'll join me.
Shenna Bellows was the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine from 2005 to 2013. She is the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senator from Maine.