Need it now more than ever


Published: Saturday, February 1, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 31, 2003 at 11:18 p.m.

At their recent state conference, the Florida National Organization for Women (Florida NOW) reaffirmed their goal of the adoption of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). Just 52 words:

Section 1. Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.

Section 2. The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.

Section 3. This amendment shall take effect two years after the date of ratification.

The ERA is simply a guarantee of equal rights that currently does not exist in our U.S. Constitution. The Supreme Court (Minor v. Happersett, among others) has ruled that the Constitution's 14th Amendment's equal protection clause does not apply to women.

As a guarantor of equal rights under the law, the United States is a poor example for the world. Most of the industrialized countries of the world have gender specific protections in their constitutions:

France: "The law guarantees to the woman, in all sphere, rights equal to those of the man."

Germany: "Men and women shall have equal rights," and "No one may be disadvantaged or favored because of his sex."

Or even the Ugandan Constitution: "women shall be accorded full and equal dignity of the person with men."

Yet the United States - the "leader of the free world" - does not have any language that specifically prohibits gender discrimination.

Even the Florida Constitution, which was recently amended to include language of gender protection, "female and male alike," does not protect us from discrimination. As recently ruled in Frandsen v. Brevard County (2001), "classifications based on sex are not subject to strict scrutiny in Florida" when making discriminatory laws, effectively making that clause null and void.

Thus the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution is the only way to ensure that all citizens are treated equitably.

At this point, 35 states have ratified the ERA, and 38 are needed. The 15 states that have not ratified the ERA are telling. With the exception of Illinois, Missouri, Nevada, Arizona and Utah, the bulk (Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Virginia and Arkansas) are in the Deep South. I don't think that it's too coincidental that the states that have failed to protect equal rights are the same states that fought to continue slavery.

Legal sex discrimination is not yet a thing of the past, and the progress of the past 40 years is not irreversible. Witness President Bush's recent proposal to eliminate Title IX, legislation that ended the discriminatory practice of funding only boys sports teams. Or the fact that most insurance companies still refuse to cover birth control, yet will cover Viagra.

Furthermore, inequities that result from individual behavior and social practices rather than from legal discrimination, can be influenced by a strong message that the Constitution has zero tolerance for any form of gender discrimination.

The arbitrary and capricious seven year ratification deadline imposed by Congress (only since Prohibition had Congress been imposing such deadlines on constitutional amendments) has been determined by scholars to be without legal authority. Indeed, the passage of the 27th Amendment in 1992, dealing with the compensation of Congress, was first introduced two centuries earlier and indicates that there is no time limit for ratification of amendments to the Constitution.

The attitudes against the ratification of the ERA are rather weak, and one wonders why the resistance continues. The arguments that thwarted passage in the 1970s and 1980s have been proven fallacious. No more will people be worried that enactment will mean unisex bathrooms (although they work fine on planes and buses), or that homemakers will be denied support from their husbands and families torn asunder.

Moreover, the idea that passage of the ERA would mean that women would be sent into combat has also proven to be without merit. In fact, women have demonstrated that they served their country well in combat in the Gulf War and with distinction in the military services.

Florida NOW calls on our local legislators, Representatives Ed Jennings and Larry Cretul and Senator Rod Smith, to sign on as co-sponsors of this important piece of legislation. We also want citizens to call them and other legislators in Florida to urge ratification of the ERA. Passage of the ERA should be a no-brainer - it offers equal protection from discriminatory laws, something that everyone in a democracy should want.

Surely now, more than ever, the ERA's time has come.

Kimberly Browne is a Gainesville activist who was recently elected vice president of Florida NOW.

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