Utah is one of several conservative-leaning states where supporters hope to make inroads regarding the amendment that would explicitly enshrine equality for women in the U.S. Constitution. ERA opponents in Utah turned out with signs and chants at a rally announcing the effort, and leaders of the state’s predominant faith, often known as the Mormon church, reaffirmed its more-than three decades of opposition.
Democratic state Rep. Karen Kwan was undeterred in her support of the amendment. She’s aiming to convince her GOP colleagues in the Legislature by pointing to an 1895 amendment to the state constitution that guarantees equal “civil, political and religious rights.”
Kwan is sponsoring a bill for the 2020 legislative session that she hopes will make Utah the 38th state to ratify the ERA. That’s a key number that would meet the constitutional threshold for approval if other challenges can be overcome.
Virginia, however, could get there first after Democrats won control of the Legislature this year for the first time in a generation. In addition, supporters are weighing new pitches in states such as Georgia, North Carolina, Arizona and Florida, said Carol Jenkins, co-president and CEO of the nationwide ERA Coalition.
However, even if more states join the effort, challenges would remain for the ERA, including a 1982 ratification deadline previously set by Congress and a move by five states to withdraw support. In Utah, Kwan said that ratification would be worthwhile, even if the state isn’t No. 38.
“It’s about sending that message of love and respect (about) how much we value our women,” Kwan said following a launch event that drew about 200 supporters. About 40 people came out to protest the launch, saying the ERA language is too broad and could erode protections for women and girls such as workplace accommodations during pregnancies.
Art student Amanda Fisher, 23, said she’s worried it could result in less restrictions on abortions. “It kind of seems to be a cover to really make it hard to protect unborn children,” she said. ERA supporters say it isn’t about abortion, and laws that protect women aren't under threat. They point out that Utah’s own equal rights clause didn’t prevent the state from passing new abortion restrictions this year.
The opposition from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, meanwhile, could prove formidable since the vast majority of Utah lawmakers are members. The faith said decades ago that the ERA could erode family values, and its members worked against the amendment in states such as Virginia, Florida and Missouri.
This time around, it’s unclear whether the church will take an active role. Former Utah Supreme Court Chief Justice Christine Durham, a longtime ERA supporter who is also a member of the faith, expects leaders to be more hands-off. Durham has been pushing for ratification since 1971, and hopes this could be the year.
“For too long, Utah has been seen by outsiders as not necessarily supporting women’s rights,” she said. “It’s way past time to recognize they belong in the Constitution as well.”
Rankin reported from Richmond, Va.