SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) — Activists pushing to add the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution are turning their focus to a handful of states that have yet to ratify it, after Illinois brought them a step closer to achieving a goal that’s been elusive for decades.
Illinois became the 37th state to ratify the measure to guarantee equal rights for women when lawmakers passed it on a bipartisan vote late Wednesday. That put the country one state short of the 38 states Congress said were necessary to approve the amendment.
Supporters say their next targets are Virginia, North Carolina and Georgia, states where they say there are active advocacy groups and significant energy. But all three states have seen attempts at ratifying the measure fail, including as recently as February in Virginia’s GOP-controlled Legislature.
And there are other challenges ahead even if a 38th state ratifies, because Congress also set a 1982 deadline for the states. There’s legal debate over whether it’s too late for additional states to join those that acted years earlier, and Congress revisiting the issue appears unlikely as long as Republicans control at least one chamber.
That does not deter supporters such as Bettina Hager, the chief operating officer and District of Columbia director of the ERA Coalition.
“Anything is possible,” Hager said, noting that several Republicans supported the Illinois measure. “We haven’t had the momentum we have now.”
An ERA would put gender in the same legal class as religion, race and national origin, making it easier for women to seek remedy for discrimination, experts say. Several Illinois Democrats said the amendment is more important than ever with President Donald Trump in the White House, adding they’re concerned he could roll back protections against women unless those rights are guaranteed in the Constitution.
“I would rather rely on our U.S. Constitution than Donald Trump,” Rep. Emanuel “Chris” Welch said.
Opponents argue that passing the amendment would give women unrestricted access to abortion, among other things.
Elise Bouc, state chairwoman of Stop ERA Illinois, said women and men should not be treated the same because lawmakers must account for their biological differences. She said women could actually end up losing certain rights, such as pregnancy accommodations and separation of men and women in prisons to prevent sexual assault, and that her organization wants to start over with new language that really benefits women.
“What it is saying is men and women cannot be treated differently based on their sex,” said Bouc, who says she’s been against the ERA since she was a teenager in the 1970s. “You can’t legislate away our biological differences. There are specific situations where our biological differences mandate that we be treated differently for the well-being and benefit of women.”
Hager said of the three states where advocates are focused now, the best odds for passing the ERA seem to be in Virginia. But no action could occur there until January.