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Former NOW President Eleanor Smeal urges ERA backers to make Louisiana 38th and final state to endorse the measure.

After passionate discussion involving hot-button topics ranging from abortion to the draft, a state Senate committee narrowly advanced a resolution 4-3 that would ratify the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in Louisiana.

The decades-old amendment, which states that no person shall “be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex,” would explicitly give women legal protections in the U.S. Constitution.

Sen. JP Morrell, D-New Orleans, said to a packed committee room that he brought forth the resolution after seeing Illinois and Nevada pass the ERA in recent years and speaking with the late Felicia Kahn, a well-known women’s rights activist in New Orleans, who he affectionately referred to as “in some cases, a surrogate parent.”

“She expressed that she was proud of me,” Morrell said. “She knew that I was term limited and that this would be one of my final legacies.”

Chairwoman Karen Carter Peterson, D-New Orleans, who is the only woman on the nine-person Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee, said that the resolution was a chance for Louisiana to make a positive change for women in the state and across the country.

“I do recognize — and I hope all of the members recognize — the importance of this, albeit a long time coming.” Peterson said. “Louisiana can certainly make a huge impact by passing this resolution and helping to ratify the amendment.”

If the resolution passes, it would make Louisiana the 38th state to ratify it, the final state needed to add the amendment to the U.S. Constitution. However, possible legal hurdles include a expired 1982 deadline for ratification, and five states who have rescinded their ratification in the years since.

U.S. Sens. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Ben Cardin, D-Maryland, have filed a bill that would extend the ratification deadline but it is unclear what would happen to the states that have rescinded.

Kristie Cross, general counsel for the conservative Louisiana Family Forum, which opposes the amendment in its current form, said she thought the push to extend the ERA was trying to “resurrect something that’s clearly dead.”

“You end up with ratification roulette when you start playing this game with the deadlines,” she said.

Cross also said she didn’t think the amendment was necessary given the existing 14th Amendment which prohibits states from denying “anybody from equal protection of the laws.”

But Morrell said the 150-year-old amendment did not prevent women from being denied the right to vote, own credit cards in their name or controlling property. “History has shown that’s complete B.S.,” he said.

LSU sophomore Ashley Sheffield said passing the ERA would help encourage women graduating from college to stay in the state.

“I’m here and I want to make Louisiana better, but it’s hard for me to want to stay in this state that doesn’t respect me, doesn’t pay me the same amount and doesn’t view me as an equal,” Sheffield said.

Louisiana Right To Life member Mia Bordlee, sitting next to her mother Dorinda Bordlee, a pro-life attorney with the Bioethics Defense Fund, said the organization was against passing the resolution. Because it has “no abortion-neutral language,” Bordlee argued that passage could lead to some of the state’s current abortion restrictions being struck down in courts.

The abortion argument could be a powerful one as the Legislature continues to advance legislation restricting the procedure.

Last week, the House Civil Law committee advanced a bill by Rep. Katrina Jackson, D-Monroe, that would add language to the constitution stating the state does not protect a woman’s right to have an abortion.

Cross also argued, as ERA opponents did in the 1970s, that the passage of the act could lead to women being drafted. “I don’t believe that equality is always sameness,” she said.

Morrell replied, “I will tell you it’s beyond offensive to me this draft conversation. …The idea that there should be some kind of weird choice based on gender on drafting, that’s ridiculous. Government shouldn’t draft, period.”

Ultimately, the vote was split between party lines with Sens. Morrell, Peterson, Wesley Bishop and Troy Carter — all New Orleans Democrats — voting in favor of the amendment. Sens. Jack Donahue, R-Mandeville; Jim Fannin, R-Jonesboro; and Mike Walsworth, R-West Monroe, voted against it.

Following the decision, the LA Ratify ERA Coalition released a statement saying while the passage is “an important first step” in ratifying the ERA, “it is only the first step, and there are many more to be taken in the legislative process.”

“Our constitution starts with ‘We the people,’ and I really just think that should be all the people because if you are not legislating for all the people, who are you legislating for?” said the coalition’s founder Angela Adkins. “We piecemeal our rights together every year at the legislature, and we shouldn’t have to do that.”