Even After Virginia's Passage, ERA Is On Uncertain Legal Grounds

Jan 16, 2020
Originally published on January 16, 2020 11:34 am
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Gender equality advocates have waited nearly a century to add the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The revision would guarantee equality for all Americans, regardless of sex. On Wednesday, the Virginia Legislature voted to make that state the final state needed to ratify the amendment. Whittney Evans of member station VPM in Richmond has the story.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEEPING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: We're ready for it (laughter).

WHITTNEY EVANS, BYLINE: Dozens of women in sashes scrambled up the stairs and into an elevator Wednesday at the Virginia State Capitol. They were trying to get a good seat in the House gallery, where a resolution to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment was up for a vote. Ninety-seven years is too long to wait for equality, said Jeannette Potter.

JEANNETTE POTTER: A lady told me there's patience and then there's doormat, and I think we're past the doormat stage at this point.

EVANS: Republicans blocked the measure in previous years. Many conservatives say the ERA will lead to taxpayer-funded abortions and integrated prisons and sports teams. But when Democrats took control of the Statehouse in November, it all but guaranteed Virginia would pass the ERA. The historic vote in the House of Delegates would be overseen by the state's first female and Jewish speaker of the House, Eileen Filler-Corn.

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EILEEN FILLER-CORN: Ayes - 59, nays - 41, abstentions - 0. For the women of Virginia and the women of America, the resolution has finally passed.

(CHEERING)

EVANS: In the end, a total of 11 Republicans in the House and Senate voted to ratify the ERA in Virginia. Groups rallied outside to celebrate.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting) Final state. Final state. Final state is 38.

EVANS: The Virginia House and Senate will take one more procedural vote on the ERA as soon as today, and then it will be sent to the U.S. archivist. Whether it will be added to the Constitution, though, is a fight that's far from over. Attorneys general in Louisiana, Alabama and South Dakota recently filed a lawsuit to block the ERA from taking that final step. But last week, the group Equal Means Equal filed a countersuit. Also last week, the Justice Department released an opinion that said Congress has to restart the ratification process because the deadline lapsed in 1979, and it's no longer pending before the states.

TARA CASEY: This is really the beginning.

EVANS: Tara Casey is a law professor at the University of Richmond. She says there is a spectrum of opinions about the ERA and long legal battles ahead. But she points out Congress has already moved the deadline once before, from 1979 to 1982.

CASEY: There's a really strong argument to be made that Congress reserved for itself then the ability to extend or eliminate the deadline.

EVANS: Virginia Congresswoman Abigail Spanberger co-sponsored legislation to remove the expiration date. It passed the U.S. House Judiciary Committee in November. Spanberger said in a statement, there is no time limit on equality.

For NPR News, I'm Whittney Evans in Richmond.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BREATHING EFFECT'S "BABY YAGA (THE BREATHING EFFECT COVER)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.