Delaware Equal Rights Amendment OK’d by Senate in 17-4 vote

DOVER — One month after voting it down, the Delaware Senate passed legislation that seeks to prevent discrimination based on sex.

After unanimously agreeing to amend the bill to make clear the limited intent, senators voted 17-4 to send it on to the House, which is expected to discuss it today.

Stephanie Hansen

House Bill 399 would add to the Delaware Constitution a line reading “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged on account of sex.” It passed the House overwhelmingly in March but failed in the Senate last month, with every Republican present save one voting against it.

GOP senators cited concerns the statute could be broadly interpreted by courts to require Delaware to fund abortions or run unisex prisons or could impact the private sector, leading to their opposition.

After spending several weeks working behind the scenes, members of both parties reached an agreement to add an amendment specifying the limitations of the measure. Under the change, the bill would apply only to state government, allow separation of men and women in some cases and not mandate the state “fund the exercise of those rights.”

The substance of the amendment would not appear in the Constitution but would be available for courts to refer to if needed.

Supporters broke into applause after the bill passed Wednesday, the last possible day the Senate could recall last month’s failed vote.

“This is a principle that is bigger than any one person or any one party,” Sen. Stephanie Hansen, D-Middletown, said. “This is sending a message of our belief in equality and fairness to the people we represent and of our willingness as a government to set aside differences and work together to find common ground on principles of constitutional importance.”

When it was first voted on in the Senate, Democrats objected to three Republicans amendments that sought to specify the

The Senate voted in favor of a proposed Equal Rights Amendment to the Delaware Constitution Wednesday. Because the chamber amended it, it now goes back to the House.
Yes (17): Bonini, R; Bushweller, D; Cloutier, R; Delcollo, R; Ennis, D; Hansen, D; Henry, D; Lavelle, R; Lopez, R; Marshall, D McBride, D; McDowell, D; Pettyjohn, R; Poore, D; Sokola, D; Townsend, D; Walsh, D
No (4): Hocker, R; Lawson, R; Richardson, R; Simpson, R

bill’s scope, despite both parties generally agreeing with the principle. Main sponsor House Majority Leader Valerie Longhurst, D-Bear, said it was important to her and other backers the wording that would appear in the constitution not be altered.

“Seven other states have the exact same language and I felt it was important in history for it to be brief and be concise, to the point, and I think the overall issue was that a lot of people didn’t understand it, but with the intent, having that in there makes all the difference in the world, and I’m just thrilled,” she said Wednesday after the bill passed the Senate.

Because the Senate attached an amendment, the House must approve the measure. Rep. Longhurst said she plans to bring it before the chamber today, although the bill won’t go into effect yet if it passes the House again: Because it is a constitutional amendment, identical legislation must pass again in 2019 or 2020.

Wednesday’s passage, Sen. Hansen said, was decades in the making.

The federal government previously attempted to amend the Constitution to prevent any form of discrimination on the basis of sex, with Congress passing the Equal Rights Amendment in the early 1970s. However, the proposal was ratified by only 35 state legislatures, three shy of the number needed.

Delaware was the third state to approve the federal ERA.

The Delaware General Assembly has tried to pass similar proposals in the past, most recently in 2017, but to no avail.

Sen. Anthony Delcollo, R-Marshallton, led the Republican push to find common ground with Democrats on the measure.

“We believe strongly on the one hand in eliminating sex discrimination, but on the other hand, in other jurisdictions there was confusion around how did this get applied in given circumstances, does it apply to certain types of institutions, how does this all work,” he told reporters following the vote.

“Because of the confusion and the way that other states have approached it, we looked to what happened and said, ‘Can we avoid some of those pitfalls here, can we make a clear bright line statement really to mean what it exactly is, that sex discrimination is prohibited?’ And that’s all we needed to do.”

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