Supporters, foes argue over Kansas equal rights amendment

Thirty years after the national version sputtered out, there's a move in Kansas to pass an Equal Rights Amendment to enshrine women's rights in the state constitution.

If state lawmakers agree, Kansans would vote on whether to make the Constitutional change in the next general election. The proposed amendment is brief: "Quality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the state or any of its political or taxing subdivisions on account of sex."

Like the federal ERA, Kansas' version has its share of detractors who question its motives and relevance. Anti-abortion groups worry a state ERA could open the door to a constitutional guarantee for abortion.

Supporters at a hearing Tuesday rejected that idea. Ask Anthony Singer why he came to the Statehouse to argue in favor of the ERA, and he says "three reasons."

"My daughter Ava, my daughter Abigail and my daughter Kelsey," said the Wichita attorney, one of several people who told lawmakers a state ERA is needed."...It hurts me that the state that I love does not provide the same constitutional protections to my daughters that it does to me."

Twenty-two states have inserted ERAs in their state constitutions. Missouri and Kansas have not. Both states have statutes outlawing discrimination based on gender in the workplace, but to ERA supporters that's not enough.

Supporters argue an ERA could make it easier for women to prevail in sexual discrimination and harassment lawsuits. And they said there's a symbolic value in putting equal rights for women in the state's most important document.

They note that Kansas was among the first states to give women the right to vote and elect women to high office, and that Kansas politicians in the 1920s were early leaders in efforts to pass a federal ERA.

But Catholic and anti-abortion groups worry an ERA could make it impossible for the state to restrict abortions or curtail Medicaid-funded abortions. Since only women can receive abortions, they predict a court could rule that laws restricting abortion are discriminatory.

"If we allow it to pass, Kansans will wake up one day wondering how a right to unrestricted and taxpayer-funded abortion was smuggled into our Constitution," said Beatrice Swoopes, a lobbyist with the Kansas Catholic Conference.

But Washburn University law professor Jeffrey Jackson told lawmakers that many states have had ERAs for 30 years, and several have tougher rules on abortion than Kansas. Their experience "pretty conclusively indicates these fears are not borne out."

Judy Smith, a member of Concerned Women of America, questioned the need for the legislation. Kansas has women business leaders and a female governor, she noted. American women have gone to space and run for the White House, she pointed out.

Today, the ERA is "an unnecessary and outdated icon of radical feminism," Smith said.

Kari Ann Rinker of the National Organization for Women, however, said the change is long overdue.

"My daughter was born into this state with a different set of rights than the little boy next to her in the nursery," she said. "I feel it is my duty to try to change that."

To get on the Kansas ballot, state lawmakers in both the state Senate and House would have to approve the measure by a two-thirds vote -- a difficult threshold for any controversial bill.

Sen. Pete Brungardt, a Salina Republican who chairs the panel reviewing the bill, said he hasn't decided whether his committee will have the time to vote on the bill this year.