The hotly debated issue of the Equal Rights Amendment moved from the states back into Congress yesterday as a House Judiciary subcommittee began considering a controversial proposal to give states seven more years to ratify the constitutional amendment.
Three state legislators, two of whom voted for the ERA, made it clear they did not want Congress to extend the ratification deadline, which is next March 22, less than a year away.
State Sen. Robert L. Egan of illinois, a pivotal state where ratification is still a burning issue, said he voted for the amendment, but indicated that he was tired of wrestling with the issure, the demonstrators from both sides, the threats of retaliation at the polls and the economic boycott of non-ERA states he admitted was hurting his district in Chicago.
"A seven-year extension would, in my opinion, seriously impede the orderly processes of state government in Illinois," Egan said.
Rep. Robert F. Drinan (D-Mass.) upbraided Egan for "wishing the issue would go away." But Egan said he doubted that an extension would change the situation in his state. He said passing the ERA is "going to be very difficult this year and more difficult next year."
Congress adopted the amendment prohibiting legal, social and economic discrimination on the basis of sex in 1972. Since then 35 states have ratified it, three short of the 38 necessary to make it part of the Constitution. The amendment has run into fierce and well-organized opposition in recent years, including that of women's groups who link it to the abortion issue and feel it threatens the traditional role of women.
Several of the 15 states which have not ratified the amendment are in the South, and ratification there seems unlikely. Most of those 15 state legislatures have ended their sessions this year, leaving only the first three months of next year to act. Only the Illinois, Louisana and Florida legislatures continue to meet this year. Several states which have ratified the amendment have voted to rescind ratification, but the Justice Department has ruled the action improper.
Liz Carpenter, co-chairman of Eramerica, an alliance of 200 pro-ERA organizations, argued yesterday for the extension. "There must be no arbitrary barrier to ultimate justice in America. And the clock on equal rights for women or for any citizen in this country poses an arbitrary barrier which must not end when the issue is very much alive", she told the subcommittee.
The worst thing you could do is drop the guillotine while there is life in the body," she said.
She said that while the board of Enamerica had not taken a position on the extension, she personally favored it, nothing that there was no deadline on ratifying the first 17 amendments to the Constitution.
Virginia Delegate Dorothy McDiarmid, a strong supporter of ERA, said prospects would imprive as labor unions and churches are only beginning to weigh into the debate on the side of the ERA and "inflamatory and inaccurate" contentions of the opponents are just beginning to be rebuted.
But Arizona State Rep. Donna Carlson, an ERA opponent, said the amendment had "full and fair debate in the state of Arizona." Extension "would be unfair, wrong and serve no useful purpose."
Judiciary subcommittee Chairman Don Edwards (D-Calif.), who favors the extension, said his subcommittee would vote on it June 5, and predicted it would pass by a 5 to 2 vote.
Edwards said the difficulty is with the full Judiciary Committee, which is split 17 to 17. But he said he would "anticipate a majority" would vote for it and it would pass on the floor.
However, Rep. Robert McClory (R-Ill.) said he feared that an amendment would be attached to the extension allowing the states who wanted to to rescind ratification.
"That way, you could pay lip service to ERA opponents while not opposing extension," McClory said. He said that would be tantamount to starting over on the issue, and while he would support extension, he would not vote for it if a rescission amendment were attached.
Meanwhile, Sen Birch Bayh (D-Ind.), one of the original authors of the ERA, yesterday introduced a similar resolution to extend the ratification deadline. He said he was "unwilling to let the tactics of a few deprive American women of their right to legal equality."