House votes to amend state constitution to prohibit discrimination based on sex

 

DOVER — Delaware’s House of Representatives passed legislation Thursday to amend the state Constitution to prohibit discrimination based on sex.

After about an hour of discussion, the measure was approved 34-5, with two representatives absent.

It now goes to the Senate.

Because it is a constitutional change, the bill would have to pass both chambers of the General Assembly again in 2019 or 2020 should the Senate approve it this year.

House Bill 399 would add to the Constitution a line reading, “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged on account of sex.”

That small change, supporters say, would do a world of good.

“Women are more than half the population, and we deserve equal standing just like men,” House Majority Valerie Longhurst, a Bear Democrat who is the bill’s main sponsor, said at a rally for the measure the day before.

“We’re tired of being told that we can’t be both good mothers and employees. We’re tired of getting paid less than our male colleagues for the exact same work.

“As I stand here, I think of the Delaware women who fought for suffrage years ago and their passion and voices enacted real change. Winning the right to vote was a bitter battle and it fundamentally shaped politics today. We have to harness that same power.”

Her proposal would apply only to state and local government, not private enterprise.

All five people who voted against the bill Thursday are Republicans. Several did so because of worries it would expand transgender rights.

“We have concerns, and maybe they’ll turn out to be unjustified, but we have concerns that there will be unintended consequences that will hurt not just women but everyone,” Rep. Rich Collins, a Millsboro Republican, said after the vote.

He said he thought the measure was rushed and would have appreciated more time to digest it.

Rep. Longhurst rejected that argument, noting she introduced the first version of the bill in January and lawmakers proposed a more expansive measure in 2016.

That 2016 bill would have forbidden discrimination entirely, including on the basis of sex, color and gender identity. It failed largely due to Republicans concerned it would have allowed men to use women’s bathrooms.

Thursday’s vote followed a news conference about equal pay, with legislators from both parties gathering to call for an end to the apparent gender pay gap.

Delaware lawmakers have taken steps to close that in recent years, including passing bills forbidding employers from preventing workers from discussing their pay and from asking prospective hires about their salary history until a job offer has been made.

According to the American Association of University Women, women in Delaware were paid 82 percent of what men earned in 2016.

“We have to show every little girl in this state that no matter which dreams and future she creates for herself, she can do it every bit as successful as her brothers,” Senate Majority Whip Nicole Poore, a New Castle Democrat, said at the news conference.

In 1972, Congress approved legislation that would amend the Constitution to guarantee equal rights for both men and women.

As with all amendments, it had to be approved by state legislatures, and while Delaware was the third state to endorse it, supporters fell short of the necessary three-fourths threshold, with only 35 states ratifying the legislation before it expired.

Student discipline in question

The Senate on Thursday approved legislation that seeks to discourage schools from suspending as many students, especially minority pupils.

Passage was not without controversy, with Sen. Colin Bonini, a Dover Republican, denouncing the measure and then leaving the chamber for a few minutes in anger.

Senate Substitute 1 for Senate Bill 85 would require the Department of Education to create an annual list of schools that “disproportionately” suspend students classified as belonging to certain subgroups, such as those based on race, economic status or mental conditions.

Schools that exceed a specific rate or have a substantial gap between one group and the rest would be required to develop policies designed to “promote greater fairness and equity in discipline” and de-emphasize suspensions.

Shannon Griffin, the community and project organizer for the American Civil Liberties Union of Delaware, in testimony said the bill doesn’t give students a pass to misbehave.

She insisted it seeks to create a more effective method for dealing with unruly students.

“If we think we’re going to suspend ourselves out of this problem, we’re mistaken and unfortunately misguided,” she said.

Others disagreed.

“I thought people were disciplined on behavior,” Sen. Bonini said. “Perhaps that is an old-fashioned attitude.”

Relaying a story of his brother, a former prosecutor in California who encountered several problem students who went on to commit serious offenses, Sen. Bonini expressed concern the measure will lead to more teenagers harming others.

“In a few years, something terrible is going to happen. Somebody who should have been disciplined will not have been because of our feel-good programs and there’s going to be a huge uproar and we’re going to come back to this building and dismantle all this,” he said.

Sen. Anthony Delcollo, a Marshallton Republican, attempted to defend the bill to his colleague, but Sen. Bonini had heard enough and stormed out of the chamber.

Sen. Harris McDowell, a Wilmington Democrat, praised the measure, claiming it could prevent unfair punishments stemming from “biases.”

“Some kids are raised in an environment in the home where things are louder, they’re much more active,” he said.

It passed 14-5, with one not voting and one absent. Opposition on the Senate floor came solely from Republicans.

Staff writer Matt Bittle can be reached at 741-8250 or mbittle@newszap.com. Follow @MatthewCBittle on Twitter.

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