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The 19th Explains: What is the Equal Rights Amendment and will it become part of the Constitution?

Home » The 19th Explains: What is the Equal Rights Amendment and will it become part of the Constitution?

Supporters of the Equal Rights Amendment have been trying to add it to America’s founding legal document for nearly 50 years. Could 2021 be the year it happens? 

Barbara Rodriguez

Originally published by The 19th

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

A movement nearly 50 years in the making — longer if you count efforts by suffragists — aims to add an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would explicitly protect people from discrimination on the basis of sex.

But the Equal Rights Amendment still isn’t a part of the Constitution, even though many pieces of the puzzle appear to be in place: Congress approved the proposal, and so have many state legislatures. There is now a new push, through the courts and the halls of Congress, to settle the true status of the amendment.

Here’s what to know.

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What exactly is the ERA?

The ERA, or the Equal Rights Amendment, is a proposal to add equity protections “regardless of sex,” to the U.S. Constitution. In other words, the measure is supposed to add gender protections to the country’s founding legal document. (Groups that support the proposal interchangeably frame it as the potential for legal protections against discrimination on the basis of gender and gender identity.)

Here’s the exact proposed language of section 1 of the ERA: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”

What does it do? Why do supporters of the ERA think the amendment is necessary?

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the equal protection clause under the 14th Amendment includes protections against sex discrimination. But some scholars and judges — notably, the late Justice Antonin Scalia — have expressed a belief that there is no explicit guarantee of protection against sex discrimination in the U.S. Constitution.

Supporters of the ERA believe clear language in the Constitution — which currently does not include the words women, sex or gender — is increasingly important with a more conservative U.S. Supreme Court that could roll back existing protections. The ERA could bolster arguments in gender-based discrimination cases that pop up in America’s legal system.

Who opposes the ERA? Why?

Some opponents believe it would overturn laws or invalidate programs that have separate policies based on gender, such as educational programs or sports. However, the Supreme Court has provided clear guidelines for the legal use of gender-based programs.

Others have argued that the amendment would overturn abortion restrictions, and conservative groups have highlighted this point increasingly. It’s an argument with no clarity because it hasn’t been seriously challenged in court, though some key supporters working under the ERA Coalition have argued that the measure is not about the medical procedure. Abortion access is separately protected under the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling.

The current arguments against the ERA is an extension of a battle that began decades ago. In the 1960s and 1970s, conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly claimed the amendment would remove various legal protections for women — an argument that found strong support among White women at the time.    

So where is the amendment now?

To add an amendment to the Constitution, Congress must pass it with a two-thirds majority, and then three-fourths of state legislatures — so 38 out of 50 — must ratify the amendment.

That has happened with the ERA, but it’s complicated.

Congress passed the ERA in 1972 with a stipulation that state legislatures ratify the ERA in seven years. By the deadline in 1979, only 35 states had ratified the amendment. Congress extended the deadline to 1982, but no additional states passed the amendment in that time.

In 2017, the Nevada legislature ratified the ERA. The Illinois legislature followed with ratification in 2018. In January 2020, a new Democratic-controlled Virginia legislature became the 38th state to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. The back-to-back-to-back votes have kicked off a new debate about the status of the amendment.

When states ratify an amendment to the constitution, the federal government must acknowledge the move to effectively make it official. That has not happened.

After the Virginia legislature ratified the amendment, an archivist with the National Archives and Records Administration refused to certify the ERA under guidance from the U.S. Department of Justice. The DOJ at the time issued an opinion citing the expired deadline on the ERA.

Democratic attorneys general in Nevada, Illinois and Virginia have filed a lawsuit seeking to declare that the amendment is a part of the constitution. The legal questions raised by the lawsuit could take years to be resolved, and some expect it to end up before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Now people — members of Congress, attorneys general, those who support the ERA and those who oppose it — are trying to figure out what happens next.

Does missing the deadline mean it has to start over?

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It depends on who you ask.

The Trump Justice Department believes the deadline was binding.

People who support the ERA argue that the original deadline was not in the amendment text that states ratified, but rather part of a joint resolution. They believe a new Congress can pass another resolution that effectively removes the deadline.

Attorneys are trying to sort this all out through litigation. Supporters of the ERA have sent a letter to President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris asking them to ensure the archivist acknowledges the amendment’s ratification. 

So what does happen next?

As the legal questions get sorted out in court, some members of Congress want to use their political power to remove the deadline for states to ratify the ERA.

In 2020, the Democratic-controlled House passed a resolution affirming that the amendment is a part of the constitution. The Republican-controlled Senate did not take up the measure.

One year later, lawmakers are working to pass the same resolution again in the House, where it’s sponsored by Democratic Rep. Jackie Speier of California and Republican Rep. Tom Reed of New York. A similar resolution, sponsored by Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland and Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, has been filed in the new Democratic-controlled Senate.

In the Senate, it’s unclear whether ERA supporters will need a simple majority vote or 60 votes. A handful of Senate Republicans support the ERA, but as of early March, not enough for 60 votes.

Supporters of the ERA believe the resolutions in Congress that affirm the amendment and remove the deadlines are an important step while the legal questions play out in court. They are lobbying the House to pass their resolution in March, during Women’s History Month. They hope the Senate soon follows suit. Supporters of the ERA believe the election of a Democratic president, and renewed awareness of the amendment, will codify the ERA in 2021. Whether that’s true remains unclear.

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