BISMARCK — When North Dakota lawmakers voted to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment in early 1975, Art Link was the state’s governor, "Jaws" was months away from hitting theaters and Jimmy Hoffa’s whereabouts were still known.
But amid a renewed push to add the amendment to the U.S. Constitution promising a level legal playing field between women and men, the state House voted Tuesday, March 5, to clarify their approval expired four decades ago. The resolution's chief sponsor, Hampden Republican Rep. Chuck Damschen, said the amendment is no longer necessary.
"I think women are equal under the law," he said. "And I think they've definitely proved on an individual basis they're equal to anybody."
House Concurrent Resolution 3037, sponsored by seven Republican men, argues a seven-year deadline originally set for ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment means North Dakota's approval lapsed in 1979.
But an expert on constitutional amendments described the resolution, which passed the House in a 67-21 vote and now moves to the Senate, as a symbolic document.
Robinson Woodward-Burns, an assistant professor of political science at Howard University in Washington, D.C., said the U.S. Supreme Court has found that only Congress has the authority to determine whether an amendment has expired or if it's still valid. He said Congress can also lift deadlines.
"The only historical precedent we have on this and the only Supreme Court precedent we have on this suggests that states do not have the authority to rescind ratification," said Woodward-Burns, who said he's working on an upcoming book about the history of the amendment process.
Still, Elizabeth Loos, legislative coordinator for the North Dakota Human Rights Coalition, said the resolution sends a message that legislators don't believe equal rights are important. The proposal includes a line stating that lawmakers agree "women and men should enjoy equal rights in the eyes of the law," but adds that Congress, the courts and others shouldn't count North Dakota as having a "live ratification" on record.
Five states, including South Dakota, have moved to rescind their previous ratifications, according to the Congressional Research Service.
Damschen said his resolution doesn't seek to reverse the North Dakota Legislature's previous actions but simply clarifies the deadline has long passed. He said ratifying the amendment now would make a "mockery of the whole system."
Congress approved the Equal Rights Amendment in 1972, sending it to the states. Three-fourths of the states must agree to ratify a constitutional amendment, a threshold the ERA hasn't met in the decades since.
But Nevada and Illinois became the 36th and 37th states to approve the ERA in recent years, putting it one short of ratification. Woodward-Burns said there are efforts in other states to put it over the top, and members of Congress have introduced resolutions to remove the ratification deadline.
If a 38th state approves the ERA, its future could be determined in Congress or the courts, said Krista Niles, outreach director for the New Jersey-based Alice Paul Institute, a nonprofit organization named after the equal rights activist who originally drafted the amendment in the 1920s.
During a brief North Dakota House floor debate Tuesday, West Fargo Republican Rep. Austen Schauer raised concerns the ERA would lead to expanded abortion rights and "redefining gender," going "well beyond" what the state supported in the 1970s.
Niles disputed that argument, noting that the brief amendment simply says that equal rights under the law "shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex." She said the ERA would help elevate legal protections for women and men on issues like pay and paternity care.
"There is so much momentum across the country in support of full ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment," she said. "We fully anticipate that it will be a very short step before the next state ratifies."