The Equal Rights Amendment, the subject of one of the most wide-ranging and impassioned national debates in recent history, consists in its entirety of three sentences.

One sentence states that the amendment will not become law until two years after its ratification. One sentence authorizes Congress to pass laws enforcing the amendment. That leaves one 24-word sentence to state the legal principle that has provoked years of contention:

"Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex."

Because the ERA was written - as constitutional amendments often are - in general terms, legal scholars and practicing attorneys are confused about what its actual effect would be.

Most experts agree that ratification would force a massive revision of state and federal laws. But no one is certain how many laws would have to be revised or what form the changes would have to take.

In court, some lawyers say, the amendment would lead to sweeping new decisions on sexual equality. But others argue that recent Supreme Court decisions under the 5th and 14th Amendments have already accepted the major legal principle ERA was supposed to establish.

One point that is clear is that the ERA applies only to sexual discrimination by governments; it does not reach private parties.

Accordingly, most lawyers active in discrimination law agree that the amendment would not have affected decisions like: last December's Supreme Court ruling that General Electric Corp. need not provide pregnancy benefits for its employees.

Similarly, a woman denied service in a men's grill could not bring suit under the amendment, but could under some state and local laws.

But feminists say ratification of the amendment would prompt Congress and the states to pass legislation outlawing private sex discrimination. As models, they look to local and federal laws passed during the 1960s outlawing private racial discrimination.

"Once sex discrimination has the same constitutional value as race discrimination," says Columbia University law professor Ruth Bader Ginsburg, "I expect all laws and private company practices to be amended to include sex."

Whether or not that happens, the amendment would require Congress and the states to change laws that now permit sexual discrimination in government programs.

"That's why they have a two-year time delay on its becoming law," explains Yale Law School professor Thomas Emerson.

"You're going to see all sorts of commissions and computer studies to tell the states and Congress where the law has to be changed."

Emerson says this review process "will eliminate about 95 per cent of the public discrimination." The remainder will have to be fought out in the courts.

Lawyers disagree about the impact of ERA on judges.

Kathleen Peratis, of the American Civil Liberties Union Women's Rights Project, says the amendment would have changed the result in two of about 15 sex discrimination cases decided by the Supreme Court in the last five years. So feminists conclude that the amendment would have a significant impact on such litigation.

But Paul Freund, a constitutional scholar at Harvard Law School, says the amendment "probably won't make much difference with the present court.

"The court has gone as far on this under the equal protection clause (of the 14th Amendment) as you could reasonably expect them to go under ERA," Freund says.

The equal protection clause says no state shall "deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws."