The Equal Rights Amendment won a small but largely parliamentary victory in Virginia yesterday after 600 citizens jammed two hearing rooms for a full-dress presentation of all the arguments raised in six years of General Assembly fights over the issue.
The small victory came when a House subcommittee reported a resolution approving the ERA for full committee action. But the subcommittee took the action without making a recommendation as to which way the full committee should vote. Thefull privileges and Elections Committee will vote on the constitutional amendment today.
The Equal Rights Amendment has been before the General Assembly since 1972 and while a small number of delegates remain on the fence (the exact number varies depending on who is counting), most are fixed in their positions. The Privileges and Elections Committee is dominated by anti-ERA members, supporters hope that some of them will agree to report out the bill this year just so the entire House can vote it.
The star witness for supporters of the ERA at yesterday's public hearing was U.S. Assistand Attorney antitrust division and the highest-ranking Virginia appointee in the Carter administration.
Shenefield is a former Richmond attorney and treasurer of the state Democratic party. Others who spoke for the pro-ERA forces were former Attorney General Andrew P. Miller, who is now running for the Senate; Senate Majority Leader Adelard L. Brault; former Arkansas congressman Brooks Hays; a Baptist leader, the Rev. Constantine N. Dombalis, president of the Virginia Council of Churches, and retired Air Force major general Jeanne Holm.
The speakers against the ERA included the Rev. Jerry Falwell, a Baptist pastor and broadcaster from Lynchburg; the Rev. Rodney Bell of Lynchburg, former Federal Equal Employment Commissioner member Colston Lewis, and retired Army major general Elizabeth Hoisington, as well as a Richmond physical education teacher and a high school senior.
Proponents argued that the ERA is a needed legal protection to guarantee equality for women under the law, while opponents said it is not needed, is vague, and would create situations that threaten family life.
Senefield said the amendment is needed to establish as a constitutional principle that legal judgements should not be made on the basis of sex. He noted that while Virginia courts do not consider legislative history, federal courts must. He argued that the record of extensive hearings and debate in congress shows the ERA would not prohibit "reasonable classifications based on characteristics that are unique to one sex." That has been one of the main arguments against ERA.
Shenefield cited several Supreme Court cases, most recently from last April, which establish the precedent that a person claiming sex discrimination must first prove that sex discrimination is unreasonable; the ERA would remove that burden, he said.
Bell, who represents thousands of Baptists in Virginia Beach and opposes the amenment, said the ERA was like a "black widow spider" in that it "looks innocent. . . yet it is deadly." He said the vagueness of the amendment opens up a "Pandora's box" of possibilities.
"Do you want American women to become like the communist world?" he said, ". . . treating men and women the same from the football locker room to the military status of a foxhole?"
Hoisington, the retired Army major general who opposed the amendment said the ERA would force armed services chiefs to have combat forces composed half of men and half of women. Holm, who was the highest-ranking woman in the Air Force when she retired in 1975, disputed that contention.
"Men and women (would) share half the burden of combat, half the risk of having their brains blown out, their legs shot off, and of being prisoners of war," Hoisington said.
"Serving one's country is a privilege, not onerous or something to be shunned," Holm said, after calling the military argument a "phony issue." She added that women combat troops are already being tested for effectiveness, and that no armed services secretary would be forced to assign women "unless there was no impact on the effectiveness of the combat unit."
Opponents of the ERA repeatedly said it would permit the elimination of state laws on marriage and would force more women to go to work to contribute equally to family support. "Down the road it will create disorder and a chaotic situation that will ultimately do grave damage to the monogamous Christian family," Falwell, the Lynchburg pastor said.
Former attorney general Miller disputed this, noting that "the federal government has those powers which are specifically granted by the U.S. Constitution, the state having automatically those powers not specifically forbidden under the Constitution." He said the right of privacy and the "traditional power of the state to regulate cohabitation and sexual activity by unmarried persons," made such things as the "possiblity of abolishing separate toilet facilities . . . conjecture."
Gilene Williams, who handled the rebuttal for the anti-ERA group, cited legal experts from the Harvard and Chicago law schools disputing this claim.
House Majority Leader A. L. Philpott, an ERA opponent, wore a look of obvious boredom during the hearing. Indeed, while Miller spoke, Philpott's back was turned and he chatted with his seatmate. The only noticeable reaction the influential legislator had was laughter when Colston Lewis, speaking in opposition to ERA, said "If any of you decide you want to go to the bathroom with me, I'm going to tell you I don't want to go in there with you."
Thirty-five states have ratified the ERA so far, of which three subseqently voted to rescind ratification - although it is not clear what statur the vote to rescind has. Ratification by three more states is needed by March, 1979 before ERA would be added to the Constitution. The South Carolina Senate effectively defeated ERA on Tuesday by tabling the measure, and the Alabama and Georgia legislatures have also voted recently not to ratify. Action in other states may not come until 1979.