Updated at 10 a.m. ET Thursday
Nevada has ratified the Equal Rights Amendment — roughly 35 years after a deadline imposed by Congress.
On Wednesday, the state Senate approved the long-dormant ERA, which among other things guarantees that "equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex." The senators passed a measure sent to them by the state Assembly, which had already approved it earlier this week.
It has been a long, twisty path for the ERA, which was first passed by Congress in 1972 and last approved by a state (Indiana) in 1977. The amendment teetered just three states short of the threshold necessary to see it adopted into law nationwide — a threshold it failed to achieve by the time Congress' deadline came and went.
But for ERA supporters such as Democratic state Sen. Pat Spearman, that deadline is little more than a paper tiger.
"It was in the resolving clause, but it wasn't a part of the amendment that was proposed by Congress," she tells KNPR. "That's why the time limit is irrelevant."
After all, Spearman and others argue, Congress' original ratification deadline was 1979, and national lawmakers already bumped that forward to 1982 — so what's stopping them from bumping it forward again?
"The Equal Rights Amendment is about equality, period," says Spearman, the Nevada bill's chief sponsor. A former Army lieutenant colonel and one of two openly gay senators in the Legislature, she says that regardless of timing, the goals of the amendment endure.
"We have delayed passage long enough," she says. "Now is the time to show the country, and the global neighborhood, we as Nevadans lead when it comes to equality for all."
The measure's Republican critics weren't convinced.
Many of them had argued that the ERA would be a detriment to families and a boost to abortion rights activists, while still others found the exercise useless, given the lapsed deadline. They said the more laudable aspects of the amendment have been rendered obsolete by the enactment of separate laws that fulfill the same function.
And then, there's the matter of that deadline, which Republican Assemblywoman Robin Titus was far less inclined to dismiss. She says she was "deeply disturbed by the theatrics" of ratifying an overdue amendment, according to the Los Angeles Times. As she tells the newspaper, "I don't believe my constituents sent me to cast symbolic votes with no chance of success."
"I would argue that this chamber is full of symbolism," Jill Tolles, the sole Republican assemblywoman who voted for the measure, tells the Reno Gazette-Journal, adding:
"On my left hand, I wear a ring that symbolizes my promise to love and respect and be faithful to one man for the rest of my life. We stand underneath a seal that reminds us that we are a battle born state and home means Nevada. We pledge allegiance to a flag every single day to celebrate the freedom that was so hard fought for."
For pro-ERA groups such as the National Organization for Women, the matter is more than simply symbolic. After Indiana became the 35th state to ratify the amendment, in 1977, the group pursued what it called a "three-state strategy" — a plan to identify and persuade the states it needed to put it over the threshold.
That plan didn't succeed, but Nevada has given NOW President Terry O'Neill new cause for hope.
"Now it's a two-state strategy," she tells the Times. "It's very exciting. Over the past five years, Illinois and Virginia have come close. I think there is clear interest in this."
For now the pro-ERA Nevada lawmakers — who don't need GOP Gov. Brian Sandoval's signature but have his support — are celebrating the symbolic victory with some auspicious timing: They ratified the ERA 45 years to the day since Congress originally passed it.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Forty-five years ago today, Congress passed the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution. That amendment would have insured women have equal rights to men, but it was never adopted. It fell three states short of the 38 needed within a 10-year window, which makes it noteworthy that today Nevada is set to become the 36th state to adopt the ERA. Carrie Kaufman from Nevada Public Radio has more.
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PAT SPEARMAN: The Equal Rights Amendment is about equality, period. We as Nevadans lead when it comes to equality for all.
CARRIE KAUFMAN, BYLINE: Nevada State Senator Pat Spearman introduced the Equal Rights Amendment on the Senate floor earlier this month. The former Army lieutenant colonel and pastor says it's time. Even though the deadline Congress gave states to ratify the ERA has long passed, Spearman argues that it doesn't matter.
SPEARMAN: It wasn't a part of the amendment that was proposed by Congress. So that's why the time limit is irrelevant.
KAUFMAN: Constitutional Scholar Erwin Chemerinsky at the University of California, Irvine thinks there may be an argument that the Equal Rights Amendment would come into force if two more states ratify it. He points out that it took 203 years for the 27th Amendment to pass.
ERWIN CHEMERINSKY: The bottom line is we don't know what it will mean if Nevada and two other states ratified the Equal Rights Amendment. We don't know whether that will be sufficient or not. I think there's a strong argument it'd be sufficient. There's also arguments on the other side.
KAUFMAN: Critics in the legislature say this is just symbolism. Spearman says it may well be.
SPEARMAN: Passage may not make it perfect. But what passage does is it gives us a pathway towards a more perfected union.
KAUFMAN: The National Organization for Women says they plan to mobilize activists to ratify the amendment in at least two more states.
For NPR News, I'm Carrie Kaufman in Las Vegas.
(SOUNDBITE OF EMANCIPATOR'S "LIONHEART") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.