The Florida legislature refused yesterday to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, leaving virtually no chance that the embattled measure will become part of the U.S. Constitution by the June 30 deadline.
The vote in the state Senate was 22 to 16 against the amendment, which would prohibit discrimination based on sex. Only Illinois and possibly Oklahoma are likely to take up the measure before June 30, and ERA needs three by then to make the 38-state total required for nationwide ratification.
It has been approved in 35 states since Congress passed it in 1972.
ERA backers had lobbied intensely in Florida and chanted and sang in the galleries as Gov. Robert Graham called the legislature into special session to consider the amendment. After the Senate vote, its fifth ERA rejection in the last 10 years, a crowd of angry supporters in the galleries shouted, "Vote them out! Vote them out!" They rallied later outside the capitol building, chanting, "We'll remember in November."
The Florida House of Representatives voted 60 to 58 earlier yesterday in favor of ratification, its third vote of approval since 1975, but that was nullified by the Senate decision. A majority of opposition senators would have to agree in order for the measure to be taken up again.
Emotions ran high during the debate as thousands flooded the capitol grounds, ERA supporters in green and white and opponents in red. Officials added squads of doorkeepers, state security officers and police to the regular units, keeping the two factions on opposite sides of the galleries. Sen. Dempsey Barron of Panama City, the leading ERA opponent, entered the chamber escorted by armed guards.
"This is an historical vote," said Miami Sen. Gwen Margolis as the Senate debated, "and I would like to remind you what happened to the people who voted for segregation."
But opponents contended ERA would put women into foxholes, boost the power of federal bureaucrats and promote homosexuality and divided families.
"The American people do not want their mothers and daughters in the front lines of combat," Barron argued.
Opponents argued that state and federal laws already protect women adequately against discrimination.
Eleanor Smeal, president of the National Organization for Women, declined to comment on whether the Senate vote was a death blow for the national ratification effort. But she indicated at a rally later that supporters would focus on the November elections.
"It just makes us more determined," she said. "We're going to put up as many pro-ERA women as we can against these anti-ERA men."
Indiana was the last state to ratify the ERA, in 1977, and Florida was one of the final four states where ERA supporters figured they had a chance. But Oklahoma legislators rejected the amendment last winter, and Gov. George Nigh said he would not call them into special session to reconsider until two more states approved ERA.
Then the North Carolina Senate tabled the measure June 8, leaving Florida and Illinois as the last possibilities to meet Nigh's demand. Now only Illinois remains to consider the amendment, but approval there is considered unlikely.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Supreme Court is considering five states' efforts to rescind their approval.
In Springfield, Ill., Mary Ann Beall, 39, of Falls Church, Va., one of seven ERA supporters in the 35th day of a hunger strike, began drinking fruit juices on doctors' orders to avoid complications from a partially collapsed lung.
Shirley Wallace, 43, of Fort Collins, Colo., was hospitalized briefly for tests after suffering nausea and chest pains. A hospital spokesman said "no irregularities" were found, but Wallace did not rejoin the fasters yesterday.
Another striker, Sister Maureen Fiedler of Mt. Rainier, Md., said the fasters "are feeling progressively worse" but are taking heart in letters of support from around the nation.