Will ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment affect local churches? Depends who you ask

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The National Center for Transgender Equality, NCTE, and the Human Rights Campaign gather on Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House in Washington, Monday, Oct. 22, 2018, for a #WontBeErased rally. Anatomy at birth may prompt a check in the "male" or "female" box on the birth certificate _ but to doctors and scientists, sex and gender aren't always the same thing. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
The Rev. Charles Swadley, a retired member of the United Methodist clergy and Williamsburg resident, said he believes that fear may stem from nonprofits’ requirements to be non-discriminatory in their practices. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Since 1972, the United States has been toiling over the Equal Rights Amendment, a proposed Constitutional amendment that would ensure women’s rights to education and a fair workplace.

The amendment takes the support and ratification of 38 states — Virginia could be the pivotal 38th state — but that doesn’t mean the Equal Rights Amendment will easily slide into the Constitution. If Virginia ratifies the amendment, the Supreme Court will likely need to rule whether the outdated amendment could go into the Constitution without starting the process over.

But still, even with the fate of the ERA up in the air, some locals oppose its ratification.

At a James City County Board of Supervisors meeting Jan. 8, elected officials passed a resolution of support for the ERA, asking the Virginia General Assembly to ratify the amendment.

Almost a dozen residents spoke during a public hearing; about half opposed ratifying the amendment. Some residents said the time for ratifying the ERA is long over, past its July 1982 deadline.

Others suggested the ERA could impact area churches — including their nonprofit status.

How?

The Rev. Charles Swadley, a retired member of the United Methodist clergy and Williamsburg resident, said he believes that fear may stem from nonprofits’ requirements to be non-discriminatory in their practices.

But Swadley also said the separation of church and state allows churches to continue to make decisions for its congregations and leadership based on gender, if that’s their practice. For example, Swadley said the Catholic Church’s clergy is mostly male-dominated.

“The state does not want to get involved in the determination of who’s clergy,” Swadley said, adding that clergy members is a “church matter,” and other religions also have male-dominated leadership.

In the past, Virginia officials have erred on the side of caution when it comes to religion, even declining to mandate clergy members to report child abuse within the church, Swadley said.

Swadley has been actively involved in legislative issues on numerous occasions concerning other issues.

“In all my years of being there, any time an issue came up that had anything to do with religion, legislators stayed as far away from it as possible,” he said. “Virginia does kind of hang its hat on that.”

On Jan. 9, Senate Privileges and Elections Committee voted to approve a resolution that Virginia ratify the ERA. The resolution will go to the Senate floor for the next vote.

Differing opinions

Reasons for opposing the ERA vary.

The Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy said it has no position on the ERA.

The Virginia Catholic Conference has released an opinion on the ERA stating it believes the amendment would create “negative consequences and legal uncertainty particularly when it comes to protecting the unborn.”

The ERA is a three-section, 57-word amendment. Its first section states: “Equality of Rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state on account of sex.”

The Virginia Catholic Conference also believes the “ambiguity” of the language could have unintended consequences concerning the lawfulness of facilities and programs that assist women exclusively.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1978 echoed a similar opinion, saying the amendment was a “moral issue.” It said the ERA could challenge a woman’s role as a nurturer and ability to remain in the home.

The church also suggested the Equal Rights Amendment would further support abortion, and could require churches to perform gay marriages.

Affirming churches

Like Swadley, the Rev. Daniel Willson of the Williamsburg Baptist Church believes a separation of church and state allows churches to keep their stance on gender-related issues.

In Willson’s eyes, that includes deciding whether to perform gay marriages or welcome LGBTQ+ members. Willson said he supports the ERA through his “Christian belief in working toward restorative justice and holistic peace.”

The Williamsburg Baptist Church is an affirming church, meaning it welcomes members of all gender and sexual identities. Willson performed one gay marriage at his church last year, and is set to perform another this year.

Willson, however, grew up in a fundamentalist church, and said he can understand why some churches would be concerned about the Equal Rights Amendment — although he still believes the separation of church and state would protect church matters.

In college, Willson’s beliefs began to change, taking a more liberal, evangelical or post-evangelical course.

“The Equal Rights Amendment offers greater legal standing for women to receive equitable pay, and greater protections against discrimination and domestic violence,” Willson said in an email. “Some of the shrillest voices against this amendment are also the ones that bear an eerie similarity to those who opposed women’s suffrage a century ago. Sadly, many of these voices come from the Christian church.”

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