Mike Jacobs: Equal rights don't bring equal chances
International Women's Day was Friday, so this column could be seen as making up for lost time, which is not the same as what's happening in Bismarck, where legislators are trying to turn back the clock.
The House passed a resolution last week stating North Dakota "should not be counted ... as having on record a live ratification of the proposed Equal Rights Amendment."
The chief sponsor was Rep. Chuck Damschen of Hampden. Seven other representatives signed on, all of them men and all of them Republicans. The vote was 67-21, more than the two-thirds majority needed to ratify a constitutional amendment.
Whether it's enough to turn back ratification is another question — and the answer is much less clear. First the Senate will have to concur with the House action, not a lead pipe cinch in this or any other legislative session.
And there are other votes to consider.
Both houses voted to ratify the amendment in 1975, making North Dakota the 34th state to approve the amendment. Three-fourths of the states are needed, however; earlier this year, Virginia's legislature missed the chance to become the 38th state.
Yes, it's taken more than 40 years to get this close. The resolution makes that point, arguing that "the vitality" of North Dakota's ratification lapsed in 1979, seven years after the amendment was first proposed. Supporters of the amendment took note of the deadline. The 1983 Legislature asked Congress to resubmit the amendment — because they feared the deadline for ratification had passed and wanted to be sure their ratification was current. Wayne Stenehjem was among its sponsors then. It would be his job to defend this session's action should it be challenged. He's been the state's attorney general since 2001.
Backing away from the ERA is not an original idea; South Dakota is among half a dozen states pursuing the same tactic. A battle over a state level equal rights amendment has erupted in Minnesota, as High Plains Reader reported last week.
Nor do coincidences end with these.
Nullifying previous ratification of the ERA is a goal of several groups, including Concerned Women of America and the conservative American Legislative Exchange, which provides model legislation to right-minded state lawmakers. CWA is a national organization that seeks to "bring biblical principles to all levels of public policy." CWA fears that the amendment might be interpreted to include gay, lesbian and transgender people.
Further, coincidence occurred when the resolution was referred to a committee chaired by Rep. Jim Kasper of Fargo and approved there. Kasper is charged with implementing a constitutional amendment approved last year that establishes an Ethics Council and sets some ethical standards for lobbyists and lawmakers.
The ethics amendment is unpopular with lawmakers, and it has set off a tide proposals for new amendments that would make it harder to amend the state constitution — in order, so the rhetoric maintains, to limit the influence of out-of-state groups that support such intrusive amendment-making.
The irony can't be escaped: CWA was the chief backer of a so-called "life amendment" in the 2014 election. The amendment got 36 percent of the vote. The ethics amendment got 54 percent of the vote.
All of this creates a kind of legal miasma. It's not clear that a state can nullify its ratification of a constitutional amendment, and it's up to Congress — or the courts — to decide if any deadline exists or could be enforced.
The resolution asks that North Dakota not be counted as ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment "while in agreement women and men should enjoy equal rights in the eyes of the law." As reported by John Hageman of Forum News Service last week, Damschen said, "I think women are equal under the law, and I think they've definitely proven on an individual basis they're equal to anybody."
Still the intent of the amendment remains relevant. Here are two local examples, one from government and one from sports:
Government first: The number of women in the state Legislature is 30 out of 143 members — just 21 percent, as Diane Newberry points out this week. She's one of the UND interns covering the session for the state newspaper association.
Now sports: The number of American girls playing hockey has doubled since 2000 with about 61,000 girls younger than 18 involved last year, Wall Street Journal reported, quoting figures provided by USA Hockey.
One reason, WSJ noted, "Young girls have seen their grown-up counterparts shine on the ice, as the American women's team won the 2018 gold medal against Canada at the Winter Olympics." Two of the gold medalists were UND hockey players.
That opportunity has been taken from North Dakota girls. UND no longer has a women's hockey team. It's time to fix that so that all North Dakota hockey players (some of whom competed on girls teams in state hockey tournaments last month) can pursue their Olympic dreams at home, making us proud and validating UND's claim to be the nation's premier hockey school.
Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Herald.