Equal Rights Amendment approved

DOVER — The Delaware Senate approved the Equal Rights Amendment Wednesday, enshrining it in the state constitution.

By a 16-5 vote, senators passed the bill, adding to the constitution a short section stating, “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged on account of sex.”

The House passed the measure 35-6 last week. Only Republican legislators voted against it.

Because an identical bill passed last year, the legislation now becomes law. As a constitutional amendment it does not need the governor’s signature.

Supporters heralded the moment as a historic one, with President Pro Tempore David McBride, a New Castle Democrat, promising the children in the Senate chamber for the vote would remember it for a long time. Dozens of people, including 11 of the 12 Senate Democrats, wore purple, a color International Women’s Day says represents justice and dignity and has been used by the women’s rights movement for decades.

The chamber broke out into applause afterward, with lawmakers swarming the main sponsor, Majority Leader Valerie Longhurst. Rep. Longhurst, a Bear Democrat, had tears in her eyes, calling the moment the biggest in her 14-year legislative career.

Backers said the law would simply clarify protections for women and guarantee fair treatment for all.

Sen. Stephanie Hansen

“It’s time that we establish equality under the law without regard to sex,” Sen. Stephanie Hansen, a Middletown Democrat, said. “Right now, we have a patchwork of laws prohibiting discrimination with regard to specific issues such as housing, employment, jury service, financial aid.

“All of these have been put in place on a piecemeal basis to address the issues of the day, but what we don’t have is a broad right to equality and its protections that will apply today and tomorrow proactively covering all issues as a fundamental principle as our society evolves, and that’s the purpose of this bill.”

But others argued the measure is merely symbolic, and several Republicans expressed fears the bill would lead to unintended consequences.

“What happens to the preferential treatment for state contracts for women- and minority-owned businesses? What happens to things like the Office of Women’s Advancement here in Delaware? There are questions around leveling the playing field,” Sen. Brian Pettyjohn, a Republican from Georgetown who supported the proposal in 2018 before opposing it this year, said after the vote.

“We want it to be a completely level playing field, which actually in some cases could possibly be a disadvantage to what women have now. Never really got good, clear answers on how the courts would interpret those things, how the courts would rule on those things and whether or not some of the protections that we already put in place for women would be stripped away.”

Several other Republican senators speculated the measure would give the courts greater discretion, essentially shifting power from elected legislators to appointed judges.

The federal government attempted to amend the U.S. Constitution to prevent any form of discrimination on the basis of sex in the 1970s, but although the proposal passed Congress, it was ratified by only 35 state legislatures, three short of the number needed.

Delaware was the third state to approve the federal Equal Rights Amendment.

According to the bill passed Wednesday, Delaware was the only state to ratify the amendment but not add the protections contained within to its own constitution.

Previous attempts to pass an Equal Rights Amendment in the General Assembly failed.

The proposal’s prognosis appeared grim last spring after the bill failed to garner the necessary two-thirds supermajority, with almost every Republican opposing it.

Members of the GOP 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, lawmakers of both parties reached an agreement to change the bill, specifying the limitations of the measure. Under the change, the bill only applies to state government, allows separation of men and women in some cases and does 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.

Wednesday’s vote came less than an hour after the Senate Executive Committee approved the bill, with a handful of Delawareans testifying both for and against the measure.

“I encourage you to take your place in Delaware and national history by passing the ERA again today to make it part of our constitution,” urged Penny Deiner, a member of the American Association of University Women.

How the senators voted on the Equal Rights Amendment:

Yes (16): Bonini, R; Brown, D; Cloutier, R; Delcollo, R; Ennis, D; Hansen, D; Lockman, D; Lopez, R; McBride, D; McDowell, D; Paradee, D; Poore, D; Sokola, D; Sturgeon, D; Townsend, D; Walsh, D

No (5): Hocker, R; Lawson, R; Pettyjohn, R; Richardson, R; Wilson, R

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

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