- Associated Press - Sunday, October 12, 2014

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) - If the campaign is any indication, a proposal to give Oregon women a stronger safeguard against discrimination could win in a landslide.

Twenty arguments in support of adding an equal rights amendment to the Oregon Constitution - from Democrats and Republicans - appear in the voters’ pamphlet that just arrived at homes ahead of the Nov. 4 election. Meanwhile, not one person or group wrote an argument in opposition to Ballot Measure 89, and no money has been raised to defeat it.

But the woman leading the effort for an Oregon Equal Rights Amendment is not taking anything for granted.

“It’s the ERA,” said Leanne Littrell DiLorenzo of Portland. “You can never count on it.”

DiLorenzo, 47, was a child of the 1970s growing up in Coos Bay and, thanks to news programs such as “60 Minutes,” learned about an effort to guarantee women constitutional rights equal to those of men. Congress in 1972 approved adding an equal rights amendment to the U.S. Constitution, but it had to be ratified by 38 of the 50 states. Only 35 states, including Oregon, took that step, and the amendment died in 1982.

DiLorenzo was not particularly interested in a question about why she deemed 2014 to be the right time to gather the 116,000 signatures necessary to put a state amendment before voters.

“The bigger question is, why hasn’t this already been done, and who possibly could be against it?” she said.

Though there is no organized opposition, the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon contends the amendment is unnecessary because Article 1, Section 20 of the Oregon Constitution states: “No law shall be passed granting to any citizen or class of citizens privileges, or immunities, which, upon the same terms, shall not equally belong to all citizens.”

The state Supreme Court, in a landmark 1982 decision, determined the language prohibits gender-based discrimination. The ACLU and the editorial boards of some Oregon newspapers concur.

“Our position in part stems from a belief that we should not be amending the constitution for symbolic purposes, that any amendment to the constitution should right a wrong, and that’s not the case here,” said Becky Straus, legislative director for the ACLU of Oregon, which supports a federal equal rights amendment.

But Measure 89 supporters say the reason Article 1, Section 20 protects against gender discrimination is because that’s how it’s been interpreted by the Oregon Supreme Court in recent decades. They worry that what the court gives, the court can take away in future decisions, so approving the equal rights amendment is vital.

If the amendment passes, the Oregon Constitution would have a new section saying the “equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the State of Oregon or by any political subdivision in this state on account of sex.”

The ACLU has also expressed concern that an amendment singling out gender might lead judges to one day think voters wanted protections against gender bias to be stronger than those based on race, sexual orientation and other factors. But four former Oregon Supreme Court justices who support Measure 89, including former Chief Justice Paul DeMuniz, wrote an open letter in June disagreeing with the ACLU’s take.

“At least 22 states have adopted equal rights amendments in their constitutions. Not one of the ‘concerns’ voiced by the ACLU has ever come to pass in those states,” their letter states.

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Follow Steven DuBois at https://www.twitter.com/pdxdub

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