SALEM — Dozens of Oregon lawmakers have signed onto a proposal to amend the Oregon constitution to ban gender discrimination, but they have run into a roadblock from some of the strongest advocates of equality for women.
Several of the measure's supporters held a news conference Tuesday to nudge it past opposition from equality advocates who worry a state equal-rights amendment would undermine protections for other minority groups.
"Think of the other protections that are afforded us in the Constitution. Why do we hold those so dear? Because that is the highest level of protection of our rights," said Leanne Littrell DiLorenzo, who founded VoteERA.org and is lobbying the Legislature to refer an equal-rights amendment to the ballot.
The bill's critics don't take issue with the idea of equality for women.
Rather, they say a state Supreme Court ruling already provides extremely strong protection against gender-based discrimination that goes beyond protections in federal law. They worry that a constitutional amendment might lead a judge to conclude that voters wanted protections against gender discrimination to be stronger than protections based on other factors such as race, religion or sexual orientation.
"We have greater protection against unlawful discrimination by government agencies in Oregon than we would have if we lived in other states," said David Fidanque, director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon, which supports a federal equal-rights amendment but opposes the Oregon proposal.
The proponents want Oregon voters to decide the issue in 2014. They say it's critical to enshrine women's equality in the constitution, even if it won't help achieve top women's rights priorities such as equal-pay mandates.
"Women under 40 grew up with this notion that we could do anything, we could be anything," said. Rep. Julie Parrish, R-West Linn, a supporter of the measure. "And I think to not have that memorialized in our constitution is a shame."
Nineteen senators and 30 House members has signed on as sponsors to two similar bills, one in each chamber. The measures would need 16 votes in the Senate and 31 in the House to reach the ballot, but they're not likely to get that far.
Rep. Carolyn Tomei, a Milwaukie Democrat who leads the committee that is overseeing the proposal, said she won't allow the measure to move through her committee and reach the full House.
Tomei calls herself a feminist and said she worked on pushing a federal equal-rights amendment when it was a flashpoint of national politics but doesn't think a state amendment is needed.
"I'm still continuing to work on women's rights, but I don't think that this amendment to the constitution would accomplish what it is I think we want," Tomei said.
The measures referring to voters an equal-rights amendment to the state constitution are HJR 21 and SJR 24.