Women make up 50.5 percent of Oregon’s population as of 2013, and yet Oregon does not have an Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in its Constitution.
While the fight for a federal ERA continues, Oregon has a chance on Nov. 4 to vote for its own ERA, which would amend the Oregon Constitution to include specific language establishing equal rights for all, regardless of sex.
A laundry list of big names endorses Measure 89, including Gov. John Kitzhaber, Sen. Jeff Merkley, Congressman Peter DeFazio and Speaker of the House Tina Kotek. And yet the measure also has its detractors, from the editorial board of The Oregonian to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Oregon.
Central to the debate is whether the constitutional amendment is necessary when Article I, Section 20 of the Oregon Constitution says, “No law shall be passed granting to any citizen or class of citizens privileges, or immunities, which, upon the same terms, shall not equally belong to all citizens.”
Leanne Littrell DiLorenzo, president and founder of the group VoteERA.org, says the current language does not suffice in providing equal rights to women. She says women are currently protected under a 1984 Oregon Supreme Court decision prohibiting sex discrimination, but that particular case says exceptions can be made for “biological differences.”
“Not only do women not have equality [in the Oregon Constitution], they don’t even have it in case law,” DiLorenzo says. “You can’t have full equality if there’s an exception based on your sex.”
Becky Straus, legislative director for ACLU of Oregon, says that while the ACLU supports a federal ERA, the group feels that “the Oregon Constitution already has the strongest possible protection against sex discrimination.”
She says each change to constitutions at the state and federal level should be meaningful and thoughtful, and “the idea of amending our Constitution for symbolic purposes is really, at best, redundant.”
Straus adds that specifying protections for one particular group could have negative implications in the future for other targeted classes, including racial minorities.
In response to that critique, DiLorenzo says, “What we are doing is providing equality for everyone. The word ‘women’ is not even in the name of the ballot title.”
A 2013 poll by Public Policy Polling found that 75 percent of Oregonians would support an ERA to the Oregon Constitution.