Slope goes back to the future for Equal Rights Amendment

Slope goes back to the future for Equal Rights Amendment
Photo by Stefano Giovannini

Get those “ERA Yes!” buttons out of your closet.

Park Slope lawyer Richard Bashner wants to resurrect the 30-year-old Equal Rights Amendment — a hot-button issue from the 1970s — and he’s going to keep on truckin’ until women are finally protected under the Constitution.

As the former chairman of Community Board 6, Bashner took the group back to the future last November, putting the once-controversial matter on the agenda, and winning a unanimous vote of support.

“I did this for Maya,” Bashner said, referring to his 9-year-old daughter. “In 2011, it ought to be very clear that men and women ought to have equal rights. It’s such a basic point that belongs in our Constitution.”

The community board has tackled national issues before — just never ones that are 30-years-old, according to District Manager Craig Hammerman. In 2007, for example, it weighed in to support of same-sex marriage.

“After we voted on the same-sex bill, it seemed that we missed something, because we never got around to passing the Equal Rights Amendment,” said Bashner, who remains on the board, though is no longer its chairman. “What is a more basic tenet than men and women having equal rights?”

Of course, the group’s vote is symbolic in nature — it’ll be up to Congress to resurrect the amendment, which was introduced in 1972, and passed by the requisite two-thirds vote in Congress, but fell three states short of requisite 38 for ratification by its 1982 deadline.

The amendment was re-introduced by Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D–Manhattan) for the past seven sessions of Congress — this time without a time limit attached.

“If every community board in this country passed resolutions similar to the one passed in Brooklyn, this amendment would pass in a flash,” she predicted.

The movement is gaining new momentum, particularly in light of recent comments by the conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who told California Lawyer magazine that the Constitution does not protect women from discrimination because that’s the job of legislatures.

“You don’t need a constitution to keep things up-to-date. All you need is a legislature and a ballot box,” he said.

But the long delay continues to take a toll.

All it takes is a quick survey of boardrooms and other halls of power to know that men and women are still not on equal footing, Bashner said. And the Ivy Leaguer should know. “When I was at Harvard, two-thirds of the graduating class was male,” he recalled.

The amendment — “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex” — was introduced in every Congressional session from 1923 to 1970, but never reached a vote until an array of mainstream organized groups and unions forced politicians to take action.

The amendment died in part because conservative groups feared a dissolution of the American family, business interests such as the insurance lobby thought it would cost them more money, states’ rights advocates trumpeted a power grab, and pro-Life supporters became convinced that it could lead to expanded abortion rights.

Experts are not so sure the amendment will have the same sense of urgency it did when Kris Kristofferson’s “Why Me” was a Billboard hit. After all, the 14th Amendment is widely believed to guard against gender discrimination in addition to the racial kind. And courts routinely strike down laws that discriminate based on gender — unless they are related to a significant government interest, such as women in combat or same-sex bathrooms. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 is also cited as adding a protective layer from bias.

But ERA supporters contend that equal rights between the sexes are not explicitly protected in the Constitution or its 27 amendments, so only the Equal Rights Amendment can provided the broadest defense. Not everyone is so sure.

“The Supreme Court has said that pretty much all sex discrimination is unconstitutional, so the need feels less urgent,” said constitutional lawyer David Goldberg. “On balance, it’s a good idea, but it’s probably not a priority.”