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Government & Politics

House goes back to the future in lengthy Saturday debate

A march for the Equal Rights Amendment in New York City in 1976. Photo by Peter Keegan/Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

The House of Delegates cycled through dozens of bills in a tidy 2 1/2-hour Saturday session, addressing such topics as elections administration, tax incentives, hunting and fishing licenses, and the capital budget.

But the longest debate by far was over the Equal Rights Amendment.

The proposed 28th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, enshrining women’s rights, was hotly debated in the 1970s. Maryland ratified it 52 years ago.

But a simple, non-biding resolution affirming Maryland’s support for the ERA, and urging President Biden and Congress to officially recognize the amendment as having passed, has generated controversy of its own.

The ERA stalled in the 1980’s after supporters fell short in convincing the requisite number of states — 38 — to ratify it in the timeline that Congress had mandated. Yet in recent years, some of the straggler states that resisted the ERA back then have ratified it after the fact. And U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) is leading a group of congressional lawmakers trying to get colleagues to change the deadline and recognize the ERA as now having sufficient state-by-state support.

Because courts have ruled that state legislatures that ratified the ERA after the deadline can’t be counted, Cardin and his supporters assert that Congress has the right to change the original deadline, since Congress set it originally. Meanwhile, some of the legislatures that ratified the amendment in the ’70s and ’80s now maintain that they no longer support it, casting the number of supportive states in doubt, suggesting future legal challenges.

Nevertheless, the Women Legislators of Maryland — better known as the women’s caucus — made the resolution one of its top priorities for this General Assembly session.

The Senate passed the resolution almost a month ago on a 37-10 vote, with three Republicans (Sens. Paul Corderman of Washington County, William G. Folden of Frederick County and Mike McKay of Allegany County) joining all the Democrats in support.

But House Rules Committee Chair Anne Healey (D-Prince George’s) has been judicious about moving resolutions this year, which can be among the most contentious measures that arise in a legislative session, even if they are mostly symbolic. She has not, for example, let out a resolution calling for a cease-fire in Gaza, or one on the use of nuclear weapons, or even a resolution seeking a federal commercial fishery disaster declaration due to invasive species.

So when the Senate resolution on the ERA hit the House floor for a final debate Saturday, the chamber’s most vocal and caustic conservatives were ready for a fight, even invoking, at times, the names of feminist icons like Gloria Steinem and Ruth Bader Ginsburg to support their position. The GOP lawmakers suggested that the resolution was flawed, that the ERA should have been declared dead long ago, and that the measure had hidden consequences, and could be seen as a way to advance abortion and transgender rights. Several called the resolution “virtue signaling.”

Saying he was advancing a question his wife suggested, Del. Matthew Morgan (R-St. Mary’s) asked, “What rights do men have that women don’t have?”

“I guess it depends on your perspective,” Healey replied, then deferred to Del. Terri L. Hill (D-Howard), a physician.

“I could think of a few just spitballing here,” Hill said, naming “bodily autonomy” and a woman’s right to make her own health care decisions, a not-so-subtle reference to the consequences of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2022 Dobbs decision.

“Women don’t have the right to make decisions about their health care?” Morgan asked, as many of his colleagues laughed.

“Let me update you,” Hill offered.

After more back and forth, Morgan said the resolution “does nothing. It’s stating how we feel.”

“That’s what resolutions do,” Hill said.

Del. Lauren Arikan (R-Harford) unsuccessfully attempted to attach an amendment that would have spelled out that the ERA would only apply to biological females. She warned that without it, gender-specific restrooms could be eliminated in the state. It was defeated on a party line 35-97 vote.

Del. Mark N. Fisher (R-Calvert) attempted to attach a bill he has introduced separately as an amendment to the ERA resolution. His bill, which he has introduced several times, calls on the state to name representatives to a national amendments convention to discuss limiting federal powers, reduce the national debt, and seek term limits on federal elected officials, among other provisions.

“Why is the majority party afraid” of this measure, Fisher wondered. “What are they afraid of?”

“The gentleman’s resolution is still in the Rules Committee,” Healey said. “There’s no reason to muddy the water” by passing the amendment.

“The gentleman’s resolution has been in the Rules Committee for seven years,” Fisher groused. “That’s not equal rights.”

Arikan said the provision on term limits appealed to her because, “We have all watched formerly grand members of Congress in both parties deteriorate in public,” and allowing public officials to stay in office for too long “is nothing short of elder abuse.”

Del. Kathy Szeliga (R-Baltimore County) said “this amendment makes a lot of sense because this actually calls on Congress to do something.”

But Fisher’s amendment was defeated on a 32-98 vote. The ERA resolution then passed, 105-20.

Del. Edith J. Patterson (D-Charles), the outgoing president of the women’s caucus, passed out green ribbons to her colleagues “to mark this historic vote” on the ERA resolution. Dozens posed for a picture in the State House lobby after the House floor session ended.

Outside groups were also celebrating.

“This was a year-long effort in which a coalition of 37 Maryland-based organizations signed a letter to legislators requesting the resolution be introduced; our legislators were in full support and gave 110% to see this through. It was an honor to be part of such a collaboration,” said Mary Ann Gorman, chair of the Maryland NOW ERA Task Force.

None of the other resolutions bottled up in the Rules Committee is likely to make it out this legislative session, which ends Monday at midnight.


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House goes back to the future in lengthy Saturday debate