Protecting Religious Freedom in Maine and Beyond

A few weeks ago I spent one afternoon on the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter BRIDLE, a 65-foot ship stationed in Maine. It was a pleasure to watch our military personnel work as a team keeping the traffic lanes on the Penobscot River open for commerce. Every time I work with military personnel I have a need to thank them for protecting our country and our freedom. It also sparks a need to share our family's military past with my children -- stories about their Uncle Bob who was shot down over Holland during WWII and their Uncle Harry's son who never returned from the Korean War. They need to understand the sacrifices our family has taken to protect the freedom they enjoy.

Sharing the moment with our military personnel on the river stimulated thoughts of what freedom means to my family. Freedom of speech, equality and the concept of religious freedom kept resonating in my mind. I thought about the recent trends to enact so-called "religious freedom" laws to support people's unfounded fears. Fears that seem to have little to do with real religious freedom and more to do with denying people equal rights. The same infringement of rights our ancestors wanted to escape.

Earlier in the day I had read about one of these "religious freedom" bills being proposed in Arizona and wondered if Arizona's leadership had the courage to say no. I could not stop thinking that freedoms for LGBT youth are still lacking across the country. I hoped Arizona's legislators might follow in Maine's footsteps and send the right message to that state's citizens.

Recently, our leaders in Augusta -- good, honest Mainers -- did the right thing. They voted "No" and defeated LD 1428, a bill that purported to provide additional religious freedom protections in Maine. In reality the Maine bill, like the Arizona bill, appear to allow people to discriminate under the guise of religious freedom. I cannot not fathom how much harm this would do to so many.

I know what unfounded fears can do to a family, a community, a state and maybe our nation. When a small group voiced their fears in Maine my family went into hiding. Our children no longer attended church. There were no more holiday concerts. We tried to find new things to fill the void.

As the ice broke beneath the ship, I wondered how people could believe that enacting a law that is based on unfounded fears and supports inequality would help make the world safe. In my mind and heart I know that it cannot.

Understanding what the Maine and Arizona bills mean has been difficult. I am not an attorney or politician that is well versed in the complex language. But the leaders that have committed their time to work hard to protect Maine, to help Maine grow and prosper, seemed to understand the negative significance and voted "No" -- to say, "in Maine we value everyone." Sadly, the Arizona legislature did not follow in their footsteps. (Thankfully, under pressure from well meaning citizens and businesses, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer ultimately vetoed the dangerous bill.)

After the Arizona legislature voted to pass that state's bill, I thought about how I might explain this action to my children. They have observed that fears often block people from doing the right things. They get very discouraged with the negativity and seeming lack of fair play. I kept coming back to exploring the meaning of truth and faith. I needed to tell them that sometimes it takes others to show people the right way, that maybe people could learn from our state's leadership. Our leaders listened to the truth, their hearts and their own well-grounded faith to vote the right way. I will tell them that we have to have faith that people will do the right things to protect everyone."

On the river, a bald eagle soared over my head. Eagles are protected and honored as symbols of freedom. They almost vanished from our landscape, only to return because people had the courage to enact laws to protect them. Laws are the foundation blocks for keeping our country safe and protect everything we love and cherish. Religious freedom should protect everyone. Changes to such important life ideals must not be based on the voices of a few that are afraid. Fears can influence people to damage the very values they strive to protect. Quick reaction without education and exploration can do great harm. As I watched the eagle's long wings float above me I smiled. Thinking of the freedoms my family enjoys, the protections that exist in America and how proud I am that our state is working hard to protect all of Mainers.

It was peaceful on the river. Soon the eagle faded from the skyline, but signs of wildlife were still everywhere. My eyes followed the tracks of a fox to the shore's edge. Native Americans consider the fox to be a wise and noble messenger. I wondered what the fox was doing on the river; it could not expect to find mice or other small mammals living below the snow-covered ice. Perhaps it was just traveling to a new hunting ground. I turned my thoughts to Maine and Arizona's political leaders. Are they as wise and noble as the fox? Do they have the wisdom to vote with their hearts and minds, instead of their fears?

I left the river with new friends, replenished energy and a stronger commitment to help educate people that are afraid. I drove home proud of Maine's leadership that voted "No" to maintain the right values an protection. But I am still very worried about the trend in our nation. The trend of listening to a fearful few who are often reacting to groundless fears before exploring the truth is not healthy or productive. We need to promote listening to our hearts so we can hear the truth and provide real protections for all Americans.