RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — 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.