While a majority of the Prince William Board of Supervisors say they believe in the idea of equal rights for all, they took a pass early Wednesday on a resolution declaring their support for an effort to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment in Virginia.
The board reached their decision after midnight Nov. 21 following nearly three hours of debate on a resolution proposed by Supervisor Frank Principi, one of only two Democrats on the board. Supervisor John Jenkins, D-Neabsco, missed the meeting because he is recovering from knee surgery.
The resolution had two goals, Principi said: to declare the board’s support for the ERA and to urge the Virginia General Assembly ratify the proposed Constitutional amendment when they return to Richmond in January.
First introduced in 1971, the long-stalled amendment is now 47 years old. Proponents have launched a renewed effort to win its ratification, with Nevada approving it in 2017 and Illinois following in 2018.
Virginia could become the 38thstate to ratify the measure, pushing it over the threshold needed to become law. But Congress would also need to act on the amendment since time ran out in 1982 on its seven-year deadline (and three-year extension) for collecting the required state approvals.
Principi, D-Woodbridge, brought the measure to the Prince William board with the encouragement of Delegates Hala Ayala, D-51st, and Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-2nd, two local state lawmakers who are among the chief sponsors of the bill to ratify the amendment along with Del. Luke Torian, D-52nd, and Sen. Scott Surovell, D-36th, whose districts also include parts of Prince William.
As debate drags on, Dumfries OKs ERA resolution without comment
The Dumfries Town Council, controlled by Democrats since the May election, also took up the matter Tuesday and approved it unanimously without comment, said Mayor Derrick Wood.
The situation was vastly different across town in the James J. McCoart building, where more than 30 speakers urged the county board to oppose their resolution based on possible unintended consequences.
Among other things, speakers said the ERA could “force abortion without limits” or lead to federally-funded abortion.
Speakers also said it could do away with Women Infants and Children food benefits as well as Social Security payments for widows and require women to register for the draft. Also a concern: single-sex bathrooms, gender-separated high school and college sports teams and separate spaces in prisons and jails for men and women.
Opponents included former Republican state delegate Bob Marshall, who lost to Del. Danica Roem, D-13th in 2017, and those who organized against the Prince William County School Board’s 2017 move to extend nondiscrimination protections to gay and transgender students.
“I think it will endanger my children to have to share bathrooms and locker rooms with people of the opposite sex. There is a difference,” said Barbara Norton of Montclair.
About 20 people spoke in favor of the bill, saying the Supreme Court had already legalized abortion based on privacy rights; that unisex bathrooms already exist and the military has long moved away from the draft while relying on women, some of whom serve in combat roles.
Others told personal stories of unequal pay and unfair treatment and noted the Constitution does not explicitly guarantee the rights of women, which is why they believe the ERA is necessary.
“The issue comes down to whether the Constitution prohibits discrimination, and as you heard tonight it does not,” Ayala said.
“The founding fathers said all are created equal, but that was a lie,” said Occoquan resident Richard Jessie, a retired U.S. Marine and husband of Prince William County School Board Vice Chairwoman Lillie Jessie. “We need people to enforce the laws.”
Several Democrats who have already declared their candidacies for the county board also spoke in favor of the measure, including Kenny Boddye, Aaron Edmund, Margaret Franklin and Andrea Bailey.
In making his motion, Principi, too, tried to clear up what he called “confusion about the ERA.” He said his resolution says “nothing” about the legality of abortions nor the integration of prisons or bathrooms or college sports.
To make such changes, “other existing laws would need to be challenged, and only our court system, the Supreme Court, could make those decisions,” he added.
Principi said he felt he has the responsibility "as a husband and father of twin girls ... to do my part to ensure gender equality is constitutionally guaranteed.”
“Gender equality is far more than a women’s issue,” he added. “It is an issue that speaks to the very heart of who we are as a country.”
But when Principi made his motion, it failed for the lack of a second.
Lawson introduces alternate resolution
Supervisor Jeanine Lawson, R-Brentsville, introduced an alternative resolution, which she said she and her staff wrote earlier in the day Tuesday in response to anticipated opposition to Principi’s measure.
Her “Equality Affirmation Resolution” notes U.S. laws as well as the 5th and 14th Amendments already offer protection from discrimination and goes onto say: “All persons residing in Prince William County are afforded equal protection under the law" and "no county legislation will be passed that infringes or denies one’s Constitutional rights.”
Lawson then called the ERA a “ruse” and said its proponents aimed to “deceive the public.”
“If abortion has nothing to do with this Equal Rights Amendment, then why is it that the pro-abortion organizations -- NARAL and National Organization of Women -- [are] the biggest proponents of this?” Lawson asked.
“That tells me this is a ruse. If you’re gonna have an honest conversation about the ERA, let’s talk about the issues that are surrounding the ERA. They don’t want to. They want to deceive the public.”
Lawson’s motion was seconded by Supervisor Ruth Anderson, R-Occoquan, who said she initially supported Principi’s motion until she researched the ERA and became convinced of its unintended consequences.
“It is very chaotic, it’s confusing, and we’re not getting clear answers about what the consequences could be,” Anderson said.
Supervisor Marty Nohe, R-Coles, said last week he believed he would support Principi’s measure. But he said he changed his mind after listening to the opponents.
“Of course we want equal rights. And I agree with Mr. Principi that we need the concept of equal rights encoded in our Constitution,” Nohe said.
But Nohe said he is pro-life and is concerned other pro-life community members are wary of the ERA. Nohe said he felt it “inappropriate” to vote without a fuller understanding of those issues. Nohe has announced he’ll run for board chairman in 2019 as a Republican.
Supervisor Maureen Caddigan, R-Potomac, called the amendment “very vague” and said she also could not vote for “anything to do with not being pro-life.”
Caddigan also said she felt the ERA an inappropriate issue to come before the county board.
“You know, we do land-use,” she said. “ We have delegates and state senators and this is their job to do. I don’t know why we have been brought into it.”
Supervisor Peter Candland, R-Gainesville, similarly said he did not feel the board is “equipped” to weigh in on such issues and noted there was little consensus among the community.
“You’ve got one side that’s concentrating on the possible positives, and then you’ve got one side that’s concentrating on the possible negatives,” Candland said. “This whole ratification process is about consensus … and what this whole process tells me is there isn’t any consensus on this issue.”
Stewart: ‘What does this mean? No one knows.’
Board Chairman Corey Stewart, R-At Large, was the last to speak before the vote. He said no one yet knows what would happen if the ERA were ratified because it has not been challenged by the courts.
“What does that mean? No one knows. There’s not a legal scholar in this country that knows what [the ERA] means because it hasn’t been decided yet. There’s no body of federal case law around this amendment because this amendment is not part of the Constitution,” Stewart said.
“The problem, of course, is that when the law is vague, the judges make the law. And we don’t know what they’re going to say.”
Lawson’s resolution passed on a 5-to-2 vote with Principi and Nohe abstaining.
In an interview after the vote, Principi called Lawson’s resolution “a pathetic example of a last-minute political reaction to the issue of our time.”
“Republicans wrongly made it about abortion rather than standing in support of equal rights for all,” he said. “It’s politics at its worst – cowering to dogma rather than standing up for what our country is truly about.”
Ayala said she understood early in the evening the measure would not pass. She called the opponents’ concerns “standard status-quo talking points” pushed by conservative organizations long opposed the ERA.
Still, Ayala said she and the other delegates would bring the ERA to the floor of the General Assembly where they believe it has the votes to pass. Republicans maintain control of the state legislature by two seats in both houses.
Ayala said the supervisors’ vote should inform Prince William voters ahead of the 2019 local elections.
“I agree with the people who said tonight that November is coming and we are watching,” she said.
Reach Jill Palermo at email@example.com