NC could be deciding state in push for constitutional amendment

Published: Jun. 6, 2018 at 3:25 PM EDT|Updated: Jun. 6, 2018 at 5:56 PM EDT
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NORTH CAROLINA (WECT) - North Carolina could make history. It is one of 13 remaining states that has not ratified the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), to give women equal rights under the law, and prohibit discrimination based on sex.

Last week, Illinois became the 37th state to ratify the ERA. 38 states must ratify a law for it to qualify to become a constitutional amendment. The ERA was first introduced in 1923 by suffragist leader Alice Paul, 3 years after the 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote.

It wasn't until 1972 that the US Congress passed the ERA, but it could not become a constitutional amendment without ratification by two-thirds of the states.

North Carolina joins Arizona, Florida, Virginia, Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, South Carolina, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Missouri, Louisiana and Utah on the list of states that have so far failed to ratify the ERA. Late last month, NC lawmakers attempted to do just that, introducing bills in the State House and Senate to Adopt the Equal Rights Amendment.

Wilmington Democrat Deb Butler is a primary sponsor of House Bill 1072, which has been sent to the  Rules Committee. A similar bill she sponsored last year died in that committee, but she thinks the new bill may have more momentum this year.

"Now is the time to revisit it," Rep. Butler told WECT. "Honestly, with the #MeToo movement and other things, other challenges that women face, I think it's the ideal time, and North Carolina can be the leader in this initiative. I think you are going to see a lot of people from a lot of states coming, trying to influence us to push it forward, and I welcome that."

Historically, opponents have raised concerns that an Equal Rights Amendment could lead to unwanted consequences, like women being drafted in the military, or losing alimony benefits after a divorce. Rep. Butler does not feel women need to worry about those issues now.

"Our society has evolved pretty dramatically since the 70s. Women are in combat now, we know that women's salaries are increasing, so I don't think those fears are valid anymore. The Equal Rights Amendments is an important statement, and it would go a long way in North Carolina to improving our reputational challenges nationally," she said.

An identical bill to adopt the Equal Rights Amendment died in State Senate last year. A new version, Senate Bill 782 has been filed this year and was referred to the Rules Committee. Some may find it surprising that at this point, Democrats are the only sponsors. Butler hopes that it will eventually win support from North Carolina law makers on both sides of the aisle.

"Things are very polarized in Raleigh. And in Washington right now, and if leadership indicates an unwillingness to hear a bill, folks pretty well fall into line. And I find that very regrettable and unfortunate, and I hope that people would see the wisdom in voting for such a provision," Rep. Butler explained of her desire to win support from North Carolina lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

"People have a connotation [about ERA] that I think is ill-conceived. Women's lib, feminism, aggressive women, whatever kind of ill placed per-conceived notions they have live on, regrettably…. I'm going to lobby as hard as I can for it. I'm going to try to talk some sense into folks who I have what I believe are unwarranted fears and objections"

WECT has reached out to legislators to ask if they will support the bill. Sen. Michael Lee and Rep. Holly Grange responded but said they were unable to comment on whether they would support the bill until they had a chance to review it. Rep. Ted Davis, who serves as Vice Chairman of the House Rules Committee where the bill was referred, sent us this message:

"I am always willing to listen to all sides of a particular issue so I can make an informed decision. While I certainly support equal rights for women, I cannot say with certainty that I would definitely support HB1072 until I see the final version after any modifications that have been made before it reached the House floor for a vote."

We are still waiting to hear back from Rep. Frank Iler, but will update this story when he and other local lawmakers get back to us with their position.

Even if North Carolina or one of the other 12 states were to adopt the ERA so it could reach the 38 state threshold, it's not entirely clear that it would become a constitutional amendment.

When Congress passed the Equal Rights Amendment in 1972, it put a 7 year deadline in place for three quarters of the states to ratify it. That deadline was later extended by 3 years, but by 1982, the ERA had only been adopted by 35 states.

Then, something unusual happened in 1992. Congress adopted the 27th Amendment, which says that if Congress approves a raise for its members, that raise does not go into effect until the following term. Founding Father James Madison had first proposed that amendment 203 years earlier, and there was no deadline for ratification.

That long delayed passage gave ERA supporters new hope that if they got 38 states to ratify it, the Equal Rights Amendment still had potential as a constitutional amendment. Advocates think that with 38 states supporting the amendment, they could lobby Congress to simply change the old deadline, and make the Equal Rights Amendment official.

It's far from a sure thing, but congressional researchers who drafted a report for Congress on this subject in 2013 say passing legislation to repeal the expiration date on the 1972 Equal Rights Amendment could be a viable option for making this a constitutional amendment.

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