Virginia vote sets up fight over women's rights constitutional amendment

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Legislators in Virginia on Wednesday backed a long-gestating amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would guarantee equal rights for women, setting up a fight over whether the deadline to finalize it has passed.

Backers say the vote by the Democratic-controlled state Senate and House of Delegates makes Virginia the 38th state to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, which under the Constitution is the required number of states required to ratify an amendment.

But opponents, including President Donald Trump’s administration, say the deadline has long passed for the proposal, which the U.S. Congress kick-started in 1972. Conservative activists are opposed to it in part because they fear it could be used to bolster abortion rights.

The battle will play out in Congress and potentially in the courts.

Last week, the Trump administration’s Justice Department issued a legal opinion saying the process would have to begin anew. The National Archives and Records Administration, which has a role in certifying ratification, said it would abide by the Justice Department’s guidance.

“I am preparing to take any steps necessary to ensure that Virginia is recognized as the 38th ratifying state, that the will of Virginians is carried out, and that the ERA is added to our Constitution, as it should be,” Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring said in a statement.

The amendment states in part: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be abridged by the United States or any state on account of sex.”

Under the Constitution, 38 out of the 50 states and both the House of Representatives and the Senate have to approve a proposed amendment for it for it to be formally adopted.

The House and Senate both supported the measure in 1972 but set a seven-year deadline, later extended until 1982, for it to be ratified.

Recently, there has been a new effort to get three additional states to sign on. Nevada did so in 2017 and Illinois followed suit in 2018.

The Democratic-controlled House Judiciary Committee voted in November to approve a measure that would retroactively remove the ratification deadline, but the measure has not advanced in Congress since then.

The ERA Coalition, which backs the amendment, said in a statement it would “work closely with Congress to remove any ambiguity or obstacles that opponents argue remain in the way.”

Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; editing by Jonathan Oatis