State House bill would amend state constitution

Delaware’s constitution would be amended to provide equal rights regardless of sex under a bill introduced recently in the state House.

House Bill 299 would provide that “equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged on account of the sex of the individual.”

The bill doesn’t address sexual orientation, nationality, age or religion.

The General Assembly is on break until March 6. The legislation has been assigned to the House Administration Committee, which must hear the bill within 12 legislative days, putting the date of the committee discussion in March when the state legislature reconvenes.

House Majority Leader Valerie Longhurst (D-Bear) is the bill’s primary sponsor. She chairs the Administration Committee.

“Discrimination today is unacceptable, but it is a sad reality that many women face,” Longhurst said in a written statement.

“Since the equal protection clause in the U.S. Constitution does not expressly protect women from sex discrimination, states have begun addressing this issue locally,” Longhurst said.

Delaware’s equal rights amendment is necessary, she said, because it will provide legal recourse for women and reduce sex-based disparities.

While the proposed Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution has been in limbo for decades, at least 24 states have passed a state equal rights amendment, Longhurst said.

“I hope Delaware will be next. Women have already waited more than 90 years for this constitutional correction [and] they shouldn’t have to wait another year,” she said.

As an amendment to the state constitution, the bill must be released from the House committee, and then be approved by a two-thirds majority. Then it’s assigned to a Senate committee, which must release it before the Senate can vote. The Senate must approve it by a two-thirds vote.

Then the bill must be approved by the following General Assembly session, using the same process.

The governor’s signature isn’t required. Unlike some other states, the public doesn’t get a chance to vote on state constitutional amendments.

Democrats control General Assembly, by one seat in the Senate, 11 to 10. In the House, there are 25 Democrats and 16 Republicans.

With the two-thirds vote required for passage, there must be 28 House members voting yes, and 14 Senators voting yes.

Sen. Stephanie Hansen (D-Middletown) is a proponent and an additional sponsor of the House bill. She will be the primary sponsor in the Senate.

“We still struggle with this [equal rights issue] as a community. We’ve been hearing a lot of inequality of pay between men and women, oftentimes in the workplace. I’ve lived it,” Hansen said.

According to a 2016 report by the U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee, the average woman earned 79 cents for every dollar earned by her male counterpart.

Hansen said she was discriminated against because she’s a woman. In 1986, she was working as an appraiser and goldsmith at $5 an hour for a jewelry store downstate. She asked for 25 cents more an hour but was refused.

“Later, when I gave notice to leave to move on, the boss brought in a man to fill my position,” Hansen said.

The man didn’t have the education and experience she had, yet he made more than twice as much as she did for the same job, she said.

Hansen said she asked her boss why and he said her replacement was a “man and had a family to take care of, regardless of the fact I had a family to take care of.”

She said she hopes the amendment to the state constitution won’t be difficult to pass. “I think the chances are very good. Now is the time to get things done,” she said.

House Minority Leader Daniel Short (R-Seaford) thinks an amendment is unnecessary.

“While this measure seems well-intentioned, I question why it is needed,” he wrote in an email. “The Delaware Discrimination in Employment Act already prohibits discrimination in employment based on sex, (including pregnancy), marital status, sexual orientation or gender identity (DE Code Tit. 19 Sec. 710 et seq.).

“Sex is also defined as a protected class in the Delaware Code to prevent other types of gender-based discrimination,” he wrote. ”Additionally, section one of the 14th amendment to the U.S. Constitution states, in part, that no state shall “deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

“Amending our constitution should not be taken lightly,” he wrote, and “I intend to consult with our House attorneys to determine the full implications of adding this language.”

Hansen said a constitutional amendment is different from a provision in the state code.

“A constitutional amendment is a broad statement of the principles we want to live by. It can cover many different things we haven’t thought of at this point,” she said.

The proposal is not part of the federal Equal Rights Amendment, which passed Congress in 1972 but was not ratified by the necessary 38 states. Delaware ratified it March 23, 1972, following Hawaii by one day and the same day as New Hampshire.

The House bill does mention the federal ERA in the synopsis.

“There is no Equal Rights Amendment to the United States Constitution. While Congress passed the Amendment in 1972, it was not ratified by the requisite number of states by the 1982 deadline,” the bill reads.

“Delaware, however, was one of the first states to ratify the Amendment. About half of the states across the country have passed Equal Rights Amendments to their state constitutions in order to provide protection against discrimination based on sex.

“Without an Equal Rights Amendment, women’s rights and protections are limited. This amendment is necessary to correct a constitutional shortcoming, reduce sex-based disparities and to codify our state’s value of equality.”