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House Panel Blocks Equal Rights Amendment

By Rachel Beatrice, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – A handful of men and women who want Virginia to ratify the federal Equal Rights Amendment rallied outside a committee meeting room at the General Assembly, holding signs that read “Equal Means Equal” and “ERA.”

But the House Privileges and Elections Committee decided to shelve the ERA, which would guarantee women and men equal rights, for another year.

“This is the fifth year in a row we have passed [the amendment] with bipartisan support in the Senate. And on crossover, you see that it’s not only ignored but completely obstructed,” said Eileen Davis, co-founder of the group Women Matter. “At what point are you simply obstructing the democratic process? We’re not giving up.”

The ERA would put in the U.S. Constitution a guarantee that “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” Congress proposed the amendment in 1972 and gave the states 10 years to ratify it. It was never added to the Constitution because it was not ratified by the necessary 38 states.

Virginia would have become the 36th state to approve the ERA under Senate Joint Resolution 1, sponsored by Democratic Sens. Scott Surovell of Mount Vernon and Jennifer Wexton of Leesburg.

The resolution, which cleared the Senate on a 21-19 vote on Jan. 26, maintained that the ERA still could be ratified despite the expiration of the 10-year ratification period set by Congress.

After its approval by the Senate, SJR 1 crossed over to the House, where it was assigned to the House Privileges and Elections Committee. That panel already had killed an identical measure – House Joint Resolution 136, sponsored by Del. Mark D. Sickles, D-Fairfax. On Friday, it did the same to the Senate counterpart.

Sickles and other ERA supporters were disappointed.

“I’m for equality for everybody,” Sickles said. “The only sure way to have secure equality is through the Constitution.”

According to Sickles, the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia “said that women aren’t protected under the Constitution.”

“He was a big supporter of amendments and amending the Constitution: If you wanted to change something or find some right you didn’t think was there, amend the Constitution. This is the way we need to go under his philosophy,” Sickles said.

Opponents of resolutions to ratify the ERA say the measures are pointless because the ratification deadline passed on June 30, 1982. But the resolutions’ supporters disagree.

“There are other constitutional amendments that have lain dormant for years and years,” said Del. Jennifer Boysko, D-Herndon. “And they have gotten traction and eventually passed as well.”

In particular, ERA supporters cite the 27th Amendment, about compensation for members of Congress. That amendment was submitted to the states in 1789 and wasn’t ratified until 1992.

“We shouldn’t have to wait for any of our fundamental rights,” Sickles said. “But it’s been our history. Look how long it took us to stop Jim Crow and segregation – and we’re still having lingering effects of that today.”

Another issue is that many young women do not even know the ERA hasn’t been ratified, Davis said. “Many think everything is fine.”

But everything is not fine, Boysko said. “There are studies that show that a man and a woman – equal in grades in graduate school – get out, go to the same firm and within five years, the man is making 20 percent more than she is.”

Davis said that more than 70 percent of Americans believe the ERA has already been ratified. That misconception is even more prevalent among people under 40.

“When we get the word out, there’s going to be a huge outcry,” said Davis, who has urged members of the House of Delegates to approve the resolution. “But part of the reason word’s not getting out is because it’s being suppressed in this chamber.”

Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, supports the ERA and its ratification. “In 2016, what kind of signal are we sending that we do not want women to be equal in the eyes of the Constitution as men? We should be well past this debate.”

Danette Fulk, a Republican and military veteran who was among the ERA supporters at Friday’s hearing, likened the issue to the 14th Amendment, which granted citizenship to “all persons born or naturalized in the United States,” including newly freed slaves.

“The 14th Amendment was passed in 1868,” Fulk said. “But it took 100 years to come up with the walls – the legislation that supported that foundation. We’re a little bit flipped. We’ve had some of these walls built that can be torn down, but we don’t have the foundation. The ERA would be that foundation.”

Sickles is unsure whether he will continue to sponsor an ERA ratification resolution next session. But he assured the activists, “It doesn’t matter who the patron is” as long as someone keeps pushing the issue.

Sickles is confident the ERA will eventually be ratified. “A big shift is coming in our country,” he said. “We have a cultural grand canyon now on so many social issues.”

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