Equal Rights Amendment reaches support threshold; implementation likely stalled
Illinois leaders react to Virginia’s vote to advance the measure
By REBECCA ANZEL
Capitol News Illinois
SPRINGFIELD — Two years after Illinois’ Legislature approved new language for the U.S. Constitution codifying that rights cannot be denied due to gender, the Equal Rights Amendment gained enough state support to be ratified.
Its potential implementation is more complicated, though.
Virginia’s General Assembly on Wednesday backed the addition of protections for women in the country’s governing document. After both chambers accept each other’s initiative, the commonwealth will become the 38th to ratify the amendment, pushing it across the necessary legal threshold for passage.
But opponents argue that does not matter — when the Equal Rights Amendment was introduced and passed by Congress in 1972, the body set a seven-year deadline for state ratification. It was later pushed to 1982. By then, only 35 states formally supported the language, five of which — South Dakota, Idaho, Kentucky, Nebraska and Tennessee — withdrew their backing for the measure in the 1970s.
Proponents point out the Constitution does not provide states the ability to rescind their support, or enforce a deadline for ratification. They also assert Congress’ placement of its cutoff is important.
Former Illinois state Rep. Steven Andersson, a Republican from Geneva and one of the amendment’s sponsors two years ago, said the deadline is in the resolution introducing the amendment for state consideration, not in its actual text.
The Constitution’s 27th Amendment – the last one officially passed – provides a model of why the deadline is “ministerial,” former Illinois state Rep. Lou Lang, a Skokie Democrat, said. He sponsored a bill in the House calling for Illinois’ approval of the Equal Rights Amendment for about 25 years.
The 27th Amendment provides that Congress cannot cut or increase its salary during a term. It passed in 1992 but was first introduced in America’s first Congress more than 200 years ago. Several states ratified it by the late 1790s before it effectively “died,” Andersson said.
In the 1990s, a college student from the University of Texas at Austin revived the effort, and the amendment was added to the country’s governing document — an “outrageous length of time” after its debut, Lang said.
Attorneys general from three states — Alabama, South Dakota and Louisiana — filed a lawsuit in December to prevent the Equal Rights Amendment from being added to the Constitution even with Virginia’s approval.
In response to the suit, the U.S. Department of Justice said in a memo that Congress’ deadline is constitutionally allowed and therefore prevents the amendment’s passage.
There are several legislative efforts to extend that limit, and the extension has the support of a number of Illinois’ congressional delegation.
Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky, a Democrat from Illinois’ 9th District, said she would work to advance the amendment at the Congressional level.
“The Equal Rights Amendment is long overdue, and I will continue to work with my colleagues and advocates to push for its enactment following ratification in Virginia. I am an original co-sponsor of H.J. Resolution 38, which currently has 218 co-sponsors, that clarifies that this amendment should take effect,” Schakowsky said in an email statement.
Andersson and Lang agree the question will go straight to federal courts to settle. Litigation is “ramping up as we speak,” Andersson said.
“The people who are opposed to this will make up anything to prove their point. They’ve tried to say it’s about gay rights — it isn’t, and the U.S. Supreme Court has already affirmed those rights; they’ll say it’s about abortion — it has nothing to do with abortion,” Lang said. “The real question is a constitutional one.”
Illinois’ Constitution already includes an equal rights section, ensuring “the equal protection of the laws shall not be denied or abridged on account of sex by the state or its units of local governments and school districts.”
No matter what happens with the federal proposal, Andersson added, the action taken by Virginia’s General Assembly marked “a momentous, historic day.” He drove 12 hours from Chicago to the Mother of Presidents, as the commonwealth is nicknamed, to be there.
Lang said encouraging Illinois’ ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment was a “labor of love for [him] for a very long time.”
“It should never have been as hard as it was to pass,” he said. “This is an issue that is well overdue, and to treat women in America as second-class citizens in the year of 2020 would be beyond wrong — it would be immoral. In a very real way, I think Illinois kind of jump-started the process for Virginia.”
Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker said in a statement that he has been a lifelong advocate for women’s rights.
“I’m overjoyed to see three-fourths of the United States ratify the Equal Rights Amendment,” Pritzker said. “These 24 words cement women’s equality into our Constitution and open a new chapter in American history where discrimination on the basis of sex is no longer tolerated. Our nation has a moral imperative to adopt this groundbreaking and common-sense statement as the 28th Amendment to the United States Constitution."
And a spokesperson for Attorney General Kwame Raoul, who voted in support of the Equal Rights Amendment as a senator two years ago, said the office is “evaluating all options to ensure that equal rights are not contingent upon a person’s gender or sex.”