The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

ERA bill dies for good in GOP-controlled Virginia House of Delegates

FROM LEFT: Virginia state Sens. Janet Howell (D-Fairfax), Jennifer Boysko (D-Fairfax) and Sen. Barbara Favola (D-Arlington) applaud a speech along with other ERA supporters in the gallery of the House of Delegates at the Capitol in Richmond on Feb. 21. A resolution that would have brought the ERA to the floor for a vote failed. (Steve Helber/AP)

RICHMOND — The Republican-controlled House of Delegates killed Democrats’ last-ditch efforts to pass the Equal Rights Amendment on Thursday, as advocates promised retribution at the ballot box.

Democrats had hoped to use procedural measures to force Republicans to take a floor vote on the amendment for the first time. After the effort failed, ERA opponents in the gallery overlooking the chamber clapped.

Then an ERA supporter, also in the gallery, shouted, “Shame on Virginia!”

“I am disgusted by this vote, absolutely disgusted,” another yelled.

The amendment has been the focus of protests and heated debates throughout the 46-day General Assembly session, which ends Saturday.

It drew international attention this week when a judge ordered a protester jailed without bond after she revealed her breast outside the Virginia Capitol in a reenactment of the scene depicted on the state seal. The judge reversed himself Thursday morning, and the woman, Michelle Renay Sutherland, was released.

The lower chamber of the General Assembly has consistently thwarted a campaign by ERA activists to make Virginia the 38th — and theoretically the last — state needed to ratify the amendment.

ERA advocates at the state and local level thought this year would be different, following 2017 elections when Democrats picked up 15 seats and nearly flipped control of the House.

The resolution passed the state Senate this session, as it has multiple times before, but failed to clear a House subcommittee, with all Republicans on the panel voting against it.

That meant the bill, which was sponsored by more than half of the House of Delegates, including several Republican lawmakers, never got a hearing in a full committee.

Critics of the amendment, led by socially conservative groups such as the Family Foundation of Virginia, say passage would make it harder to limit abortions and illegal to separate the sexes in bathrooms, college dormitories and school sports — a contention that supporters dispute.

Supporters, including the Feminist Majority Foundation, the National Organization for Women and the ERA Coalition, say the measure would enshrine women’s equality in the Constitution and is akin to the right to vote.

The first of three efforts to allow a floor vote on the legislation failed, 50 to 50. The only Republican to vote yes was Del. David E. Yancey (Newport News), who won reelection in 2017 through a lot drawing, allowing the GOP to retain a slim majority.

Yancey faces a competitive race again this fall. He has previously said his mother’s background as an immigrant and Holocaust survivor helped him understand the importance of the ERA.

Two more votes also failed.

Democrats say they will remind voters of Republicans’ opposition to the ERA in November when all 140 seats in the legislature are on the ballot.

“History will not remember members of this General Assembly favorably,” Del. Jennifer D. Carroll Foy (D-Prince William), a chief ERA proponent, said on the House floor before the votes.

The implied threat drew condemnation from Del. Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah), an ERA opponent and member of House GOP leadership.

“We’ve been accused of trying to silence people, trying to oppress people, trying to make people into second-class citizens,” he said. “If that’s not fearmongering, I don’t know what is.”

Advocates on both sides of the issue will take the national ERA fight to North Carolina next month, when lawmakers plan to introduce their own set of bills to ratify the measure.

The ERA, passed by Congress in 1972, needed approval by 38 of the 50 states by 1982 to be ratified. The measure stalled at 35. It later was approved in Nevada and Illinois.

But opponents note passage in Virginia would not have automatically added the ERA to the Constitution because the deadline has expired. Supporters in Congress have introduced bills to remove the deadline or restart the state ratification process.

On Monday, protesters descended on the state Capitol in Richmond to demand a vote by the House during the legislature’s final week.

Sutherland, 45, of New York, joined another activist to act out a scene shown on the Virginia state seal.

She portrayed the deity Virtus, breast bared with a spear and a sword in hand, standing over a man, Tyranny, who is splayed on the ground with his crown nearby — an irresistible metaphor for ERA supporters.

Sutherland was charged with misdemeanor indecent exposure and ordered held without bond by District Judge Lawrence B. Cann III, sparking an outcry from advocates.

Sutherland’s lawyer, David Baugh, said Cann explained Thursday morning that he was not told initially that Sutherland was participating in a political protest.

“As far as he knew she’s a flasher,” Baugh said. “He said, ‘When I denied you bond, you had no ties to Virginia, and this is all I had in front of me.’ ”

Sutherland, who goes by the name “Sister Leona,” said she spent her time behind bars talking to 25 other female prisoners — about what they were in for, how to play spades and the ERA.

Cann released Sutherland on a $1,500 personal recognizance bond, Baugh said. She did not have to put up the money, but would have to pay it if she did not show up for her court date in late March.

Eli Rosenberg, Patricia Sullivan and Laura Vozzella contributed to this report.

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