Amid an attempt by the U.S. Senate to revive the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) — which failed in 1982 — the Catholic bishops of the United States have urged senators to vote down the proposal, citing possible threats to religious freedom as well as a likelihood that the amendment would be used to strike down pro-life laws and promote public funding for abortion.
The U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing Feb. 28 to discuss a resolution to revoke the original 1982 deadline for the ERA’s ratification, thus allowing it to become part of the U.S. Constitution.
“Catholic teaching speaks very clearly and strongly about the equality of men and women … For the needs of those in challenging circumstances in particular, whom many of our ministries serve, we have called lawmakers to radical solidarity and offered numerous policy recommendations to provide women and their families meaningful assistance and support,” the U.S. bishops wrote in a Feb. 27 letter.
“That all being said, we are writing to you to express our alarm with a number of far-reaching consequences that will arise from the proposed Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), and its negative impacts to the common good and to religious freedom. We strongly urge you to oppose it and any resolution attempting to declare it ratified.”
Drafters of the bishops’ statement included Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, Archbishop Borys Gudziak of the Ukrainian Catholic Eparchy of Philadelphia, and Bishops Robert Barron of Winona-Rochester and Michael Burbidge of Arlington.
The ERA was first introduced in Congress a century ago, in 1923. The amendment states 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.”
In 1972, Congress submitted the ERA to the states for ratification, requiring a three-fourths majority to add the amendment to the Constitution. Ultimately, the amendment failed to garner the required 38 states, neither by the original 1979 deadline nor the subsequent extension to 1982. In addition, five states rescinded their original ratification of the amendment.
Despite the expiration of the deadline, states such as Nevada and Illinois continued to ratify the amendment, with Virginia becoming the 38th state to approve the amendment in 2020.
The bishops noted that activists for abortion rights, such as the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL) have touted the ERA as a means of overturning pro-life laws throughout the country. NARAL stated in 2019 that the ERA, if ratified, “would reinforce the constitutional right to abortion by clarifying that the sexes have equal rights, which would require judges to strike down anti-abortion laws because they violate both the constitutional right to privacy and sexual equality.”
In at least two states with equal-rights amendments with language analogous to that of the federal ERA — Connecticut and New Mexico — courts have interpreted the amendments to require government funding of abortion, the bishops said.
“Both supporters and opponents of abortion believe that the federal ERA would have this effect, as well as restrain the ability of federal and state governments to enact other measures regulating abortion, such as third-trimester or partial-birth abortion bans, parental consent, informed consent, conscience-related exemptions, and other provisions,” the bishops wrote.
“While in the early years of the ERA debate some considered these abortion threats to be remote or ‘scare tactics,’ abortion advocates in recent years have freely admitted that they intend to use the ERA to litigate such abortion claims and anticipate that such cases would be successful.”
Additionally, the bishops warned that the amendment could also promote a redefinition of sex discrimination that could affect the ability of churches and other faith-based organizations to obtain and utilize conscience protections whenever there is a claimed conflict with the sexual nondiscrimination norms that the ERA would adopt. The ERA could also lead to requirements that would require health care professionals to perform, and secular and religious employers to cover, “gender transition surgery,” the bishops said.
“Since the equal protection clause already subjects sex discrimination to a rigorous constitutional test, the ERA presumably is intended to do something more. And that ‘something more’ is an opening for proponents to argue that the ERA has applications such as those described above. There is little question that the ERA would unleash a generation or more of litigation to determine its meaning, likely resulting in some, if not all, of the consequences described here,” the letter says.
The Feb. 28 hearing took place the same day that a federal appeals court ruled that the ERA’s backers failed to prove that the 1982 deadline was not legally valid or binding, Bloomberg Law reported, leaving the fate of the deadline in the hands of Congress. The bishops urged the Senate to vote down the resolution and instead “prioritize meaningful solutions for women in need and for their children.”
There is an identical resolution currently in the U.S. House. No dates have been set for votes on the resolutions as of Tuesday.