By Kal Weinstein
Capital News Service
RICHMOND - You would never know from the gathering of more than 50 ERA advocates this week that resolutions to ratify the federal Equal Rights Amendment died in a House of Delegates committee last month.
Despite opposition to the ERA from House Republicans, legal and business experts are still making the case that the U.S. Constitution should be amended to guarantee that women are treated fairly.
At the head of a large conference room in the law offices of Hunton Andrews Kurth LLP, attorneys from the advocacy group VARatifyERA and the solicitor general’s office held a panel discussion titled “The Equal Rights Amendment: Law and Policy.”
“There are a lot of laws currently protecting women, but those are subject to change,” said Deputy Solicitor General Michelle Kallen. “It’s a lot easier to change laws than it is to change the Constitution.”
Confronting objections to the ERA head-on, Kallen cleared up the misconception that the 14th Amendment, adopted after the Civil War to address the citizenship rights of former slaves, provides equal protection from sex-based discrimination.
“There is a difference between the level of protection that we have with discrimination on account of sex versus discrimination on account of other protected groups,” Kallen said. She argued that the Reconstruction-era amendment places the classes of race and national origin above classes of sex and gender with regard to scrutiny under the law.
Patricia Wallace, an attorney working closely with VARatifyERA, said she wanted to become involved after examining discrepancies between the prison systems for men and women. As a member of the panel, she explained the role of attorneys in replacing the current “male-centric model” with a “rights-based model.”
“Our responsibility as attorneys is to consider this seriously,” Wallace said. “We have this whole 200 years of court cases built on a premise that is male-centric so we need to be able to think creatively as attorneys and help courts.”
Much of the hour-long discussion was permeated with legal language and terminology, but members of the audience showed up prepared to listen and engage with the panel.
Ben Barkin-Wilkins, who drove from Charlottesville with his wife, said he learned a lot from Tuesday’s event.
“As I was growing up, the idea of an ERA seemed redundant,” Barkin-Wilkins said. “Why would you need a special amendment to protect women’s rights when everybody’s rights are protected in the Constitution?”
Barkin-Wilkins said the point the panel made that resonated with him the most was that not everyone interprets the Constitution the same.
“People have idiosyncratic readings of the Constitution,” he said. “So it’s important to make things like this very explicit.”
The ERA says, “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”
With the General Assembly still in session, ERA advocates remain hopeful that the issue will be brought to the House floor for a full vote.
The Senate passed a resolution to ratify the ERA on Jan. 15. This week, that resolution -- along with three similar House proposals -- died in the House Privileges and Elections Committee.
However, ERA proponents say it may be possible for House Speaker Kirk Cox to have the full House of Delegates vote on the Senate measure. Others say it is unclear whether Cox, a Republican from Colonial Heights, has the authority to direct such a vote.
Kati Hornung, a campaign coordinator for VARatifyERA, asked ERA supporters to call their legislators.
Hornung noted that Virginia’s image has taken a tumble from a rally of white supremacists in Charlottesville in 2018 and, during the past week, a furor over a racist photo on Gov. Ralph Northam’s page in his medical school yearbook.
“We’ve been known nationally and internationally through the Charlottesville events, and now through our governor’s yearbook picture,” Hornung said. “Right now, given the narrative, it’s time for Virginia to step out of the past and move toward the future.”
On Thursday, nine days before the legislative session ends, VARatifyERA will host a rally at the Virginia Capitol in a final plea for the General Assembly to approve the ERA.
Virginia would be the 38th state to approve the ERA -- the number needed for ratification.
However, the deadline to ratify the amendment has passed, and experts disagree whether the ERA can be ratified at this point.