Bid to revive Equal Rights Amendment in Virginia fails by 1 vote

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RICHMOND, Va. (WHSV) — UPDATE (Feb. 21):

Advocates for the ERA, who made up a majority of the audience, enter the committee hearing. | Photo by Georgia Green

A last-ditch effort to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment in Virginia — which would have been a key milestone in a nearly half-century old campaign — came up a single vote short Thursday.

The House of Delegates deadlocked 50-50 on a bid to force a full floor vote on the gender-equality measure, with the tie vote meaning the effort failed.

Supporters of the ERA had hoped this increasingly blue state was going to be the 38th state to ratify the amendment. Having 38 states on board would meet the U.S. Constitution's threshold for approval, but it would also likely spark battles in the courts and Congress over a long-passed 1982 deadline and various other legal issues.

Those are all moot for now, as Virginia House Republicans defeated unusual parliamentary moves by Democrats to try and bring a full floor vote on the ERA on Thursday. This year's legislative session is set to end on Saturday, meaning the issue is dead for this year.

The proposed amendment to the U.S. Constitution would outlaw discrimination based on gender, providing Congress with firmer grounding to pass anti-discrimination laws while giving lawsuits more strength in the courts. Supporters said it's a long overdue measure needed to provide equal protection to women under the law. Opponents said it's an unnecessary measure that would, among other things, loosen abortion regulations.

ERA supporters mounted an unusually aggressive lobbying and advocacy campaign this year. Advocates held vigils and often packed Capitol hallways to greet lawmakers on their way to the House or Senate chambers. Some staged multiple protests aimed at House Republican leaders, including one that led to a women being arrested and jailed for several days on a charge of indecent exposure. Democrats made pointed comments aimed at their Republican colleagues during floor speeches.

"I see men that still allow the legacy of fear from opening the doors of opportunity for others," said Democratic Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, "Fear has caused this body to be on the wrong side of history ... too many times and for far too long."

The pro-ERA legislation easily passed the Republican-controlled Senate with bipartisan support, but stalled in the House.

Republicans there said ratifying the ERA could lead to a raft of unintended consequences, including making it harder for women-owned businesses to win state contracts.

And GOP House Majority Leader Del. Todd Gilbert said the ERA was being pushed by pro-abortion advocates as a way of gaining "an unfettered right to an abortion, right up until the moment of birth and at taxpayer expense."

Republicans have a 51-49 advantage in the House. The lone GOP defector on Thursday's vote was Republican Del. David Yancey, whose 2017 re-election race ended in a tie and had to be decided by a random name drawing.

Some ERA-supporters heckled Republicans from the gallery after the vote. Daphne Portis of Richmond yelled out that Republicans were disrespecting her 23 years spent in the Air Force, and called the vote "disgusting."

"I defended this country, and they should be defending me," she said.

Democrats have made clear that they intend to make the ERA a key issue during this year's legislative elections. All 140 House and Senate seats will be up for grabs in what's expected to be a competitive fight for partisan control of the General Assembly.

Family Foundation President Victoria Cobb said her socially conservative group will help Republicans who voted against the ERA. She said Democrats pushing the ERA, along with other legislation aimed at loosening restrictions on late-term abortions, are out of step with the majority of Virginia voters.

"We'll be impactful, particularly in the areas where there are tight races to make sure that people understand why these delegates voted the way they did," Cobb said.

A poll at the end of 2018 showed overwhelming support among Virginians for ratification of the amendment. Only twelve percent of citizens opposed it.

In response to the Thursday vote, Virginia House Democrats issued a statement reading "The ERA would have stated once and for all, that equality between men and women is a fundamental tenet of our society. But although we are disappointed, we’re not giving up. 2019 is an election year here in Virginia. This time next year, when the Democrats have the majority, we will ratify the Equal Rights Amendment."

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UPDATE (Jan. 25):

A proposal to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment in Virginia is all but dead.

A Republican-controlled committee in the House of Delegates voted down another version of the gender-equality measure Friday.

Proponents had hoped the measure still had chance of passage after a subcommittee defeated the measure Tuesday. Friday's vote means the measure has almost no chance of passage this year.

ERA proponents had hoped Virginia will become the 38th state to approve the amendment. It would then have met the threshold for ratification in the U.S. Constitution. But even if it's ratified, court battles would likely ensue over a long-passed 1982 deadline set by Congress.

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UPDATE (Jan. 22):

A proposal to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment in Virginia has once again failed to make it out of a committee in the state's House of Delegates.

A subcommittee for the Republican-controlled Privileges and Elections Committee voted down the gender-equality measure Tuesday.

Delegates Ransone, Ingram, Fowler, and McGuire voted to pass by the bill indefinitely. Delegates Sickles and VanValkenburg voted against the measure to pass by the bill.

That vote means the resolution is unlikely to get a full House vote this session. The Senate approved the measure last week on a 26-14 vote, with seven Republican senators joining the 19 Democrats voting to ratify.

A recently released poll showed overwhelming support among Virginians for ratification of the amendment. Only twelve percent of citizens opposed it.

ERA proponents hoped Virginia would become the 38th state to approve the amendment so it could meet the threshold for ratification in the U.S. Constitution.

But even if 38 states ratify the amendment, court battles would likely ensue over whether the original ERA can be revived.

The amendment was first introduced by suffragette Alice Paul in 1923 but made little momentum until the 1970s when 35 states ratified it, three short of the 38 needed to make an amendment part of the U.S. Constitution ahead of a 1982 deadline.

But the Constitution does not pecifically give Congress the right to put a deadline on amendment ratification, and in the last two years, Nevada and Illinois ratified the ERA, bringing the number of states to 37.

Bills to ratify the ERA in Virginia have passed Virginia's Senate four times before, but have never passed Virginia's House or even left its Privileges and Elections Committee.

The full committee could resurrect the bill on Friday, overruling the subcommittee decision, but, based on recent years, that appears unlikely. If it does happen, however, ERA supporters say there are enough votes in the House to pass to the resolution. Proponents are holding out hope for that chance.

"I think that with this type of attention that it’s getting, I think there’s an expectation that it will be brought to full committee on Friday,” said Del. Mark Sickles of Fairfax, one of two Democrats on the subcommittee.

The subcommittee’s chairwoman — Del. Margaret Ransone, R-Westmoreland — was vocal about her opposition to the ERA, sparking tensions with the crowd. Before the vote, Ransone asked those in support of the ERA to stand, and most people in the audience rose.

“This resolution has come after this committee year after year, meaning we are very aware of this resolution and it’s a thoroughly understood issue,” Ransone said. “I don’t need words on a piece of paper — God made us all equal.”

In her remarks, Ransone referenced Eileen Davis, co-founder of the pro-ERA group Women Matter and mother of U.S. Rep. Abigail Spanberger, by name.

ERA supporters “have disrespected me year after year,” Ransone said. “And, Eileen, you have brought young people and young women to my office and told them that they’re not worthy. They are worthy.”

Ransone said that she is respected by the male members of the Republican Caucus and that women “deserve every opportunity in life that a man does.”

“Women deserve to be in the Constitution,” Davis said from the audience in response.

Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-Stafford, who sponsored HJ 579, called the subcommittee vote “one of the most important … that we will take in our lifetime.”

“The same arguments that are being made are the arguments that were made for segregation,” Carroll Foy said. “We want to be on the right side of this issue.”


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UPDATE (Jan. 15):

The Virginia Senate has passed a bill to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment.

Following nearly two hours of discussion on the Senate floor, members voted 26-14 to to ratify SJ 284, the proposed amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would outlaw discrimination based on gender.

Congress approved the ERA for ratification by the states in 1972. Thirty-five had ratified it by a final 1982 deadline, leaving the amendment three states short of what was needed.

In the last two years, Nevada and Illinois ratified the ERA, bringing the number of states to 37. ERA supporters are now looking to Virginia to become the final state, though there is much debate over whether the amendment can still legally be revived.

A recently released poll showed overwhelming support among Virginians for ratification of the amendment. Only twelve percent of citizens opposed it.

But for years, bills to ratify the ERA have never passed Virginia's House or even left its Privileges and Elections Committee. The Senate has approved it four times before.

Though Democrats gained 11 House of Delegates seats in 2017, both chambers remain controlled by Republicans. Statewide offices, like the governorship, are controlled by Democrats.

Privileges and Elections Committee Chair Mark Cole did not allow a hearing on the amendment in 2018 and lists many criticisms of the ERA on his website. They include the long-expired 1982 deadline, but also the fact that five states that ratified in the 1970s later passed measures to rescind their support.

Plus, he said, many laws in Virginia already protect against gender-based discrimination.

"The ERA proponents need to spend their time lobbying Congress and not trying to get the General Assembly to pass a resolution that would have no effect or worse spark a series of lawsuits," Cole wrote.

There has been much debate over the constitutionality of states trying to rescind their ratifications, according to a July report from the Congressional Research Service. It's just one of many issues that legal experts say would likely spark a massive legal fight. ERA Proponents, for instance, question the finality of the 1982 congressional deadline.

There is also much debate over what the ERA would do.

Virginia Cobb, president of The Family Foundation of Virginia, said the ERA could be used to justify taxpayer-funded abortion because "only women can be pregnant, (and) therefore denial of abortion funding is sex-oriented discrimination."

Anne Schlafly Cori, who chairs the conservative Eagle Forum, said a government-funded women's shelter could be prohibited from excluding men and that the ERA would give too much power to the federal government.

"They're attempting to shoehorn a cadaver into the Constitution that was debated and rejected in the 1970s for good reasons," she said.

University of Baltimore law professor Michele E. Gilman said the courts would ultimately decide what the ERA would do.

"The next steps would be test cases and court battles," she said. Many would "ultimately go to the U.S. Supreme Court. And the court could read it in a way that is much more narrow and doesn't necessarily reflect the intent of the ERA."

Gilman said the amendment would not be the "parade of horribles" that critics claim. And it wouldn't be a "magic overnight solution" for gender equality, either. But, she said, a constitutional amendment against gender-based discrimination would carry powerful symbolic value.

Smeal, the former president of NOW who now heads the Feminist Majority organization, said that if Virginia fails to ratify the ERA, another state will.

"Our strength is only growing," she said.



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ORIGINAL STORY (Jan. 10):

A push for Virginia to become the 38th state to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment has cleared its first legislative hurdle.

A state Senate committee voted in favor of legislation Wednesday to approve the gender-equality amendment.

The legislation still has to be voted on by the full Senate and the House. It's unclear if there are enough votes in the GOP-controlled General Assembly for the measure to pass.

Its passage would mean the ERA has reached the threshold for ratification, but not by the 1982 deadline set by Congress.

There is debate over whether the ERA can be revived and experts say a legal battle will likely ensue if Virginia were to ratify the amendment.