Thursday, February 25, 2010

Toward a More Perfect Union

The United States Constitution starts off with a grammatical oddity.

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more Perfect Union…”

Merriam-Webster defines perfect as “being entirely without flaw or defect".  So how can something (the Union) be “more perfect”?   Either it’s perfect or it’s not.

Clearly, the Union has never been perfect, neither in Revolutionary times nor today.  When the Constitution was ratified, slavery was common, with slaves counting as fractional persons.  Women and people who did not own property did not have the right to vote.  In fact, the Constitution had to be changed almost immediately after ratification through the first Ten Amendments – the Bill of Rights.

In 1972, we took a giant step toward bringing the Union one step closer to perfection.  Congress passed, by the required two-thirds majority, an Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution that would guarantee rights to all people, regardless of gender.   Even President Nixon endorsed this amendment.  In order for the amendment to become part of the Constitution, it would need to be ratified by three-fourths (38) of the State Legislatures within seven years, i.e. by 1979.

Unfortunately, the late 70s was an era of Conservative influence, culminating with the election of Ronald Reagan as president.  While 35 state legislatures had ratified the ERA, it was still three short of the number for enactment.  So today, while rights for women are improving incrementally (e.g. the Lilly Ledbetter Act), the struggle continues for equal rights in our democracy.

While the gap is closing (albeit slowly) for women’s rights, today there is even a wider gap in achieving rights for gays and lesbians.  As evidenced by the quick implementation of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”, the snail’s pace of its repeal, the rampant (and sometimes violent) discrimination against gay Americans, and the struggle for marriage equality, we have a long way to go before the Union becomes “more perfect”.

It is now a new generation since the original ERA was passed by Congress.   It’s time for a new ERA to be proposed and ratified that encompasses not only  the rights of women, but also those of gay Americans.

The Amendment should be worded just like the 1972 version, with the addition of the italicized portion:

Section 1. Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex or sexual orientation.

Section 2. The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.

Section 3. This amendment shall take effect two years after the date of ratification.

How can such an Amendment pass in this day and age?   There will be naysayers on both the Left and the Right.

On the Right, there will be pushback from the homophobes and femophobes spouting the extreme and ridiculous epithets that they are using today – shared bathrooms, marriages to goats, etc.  On the Left, there will be their usual timidity saying that the mood of the country today is not conducive to such a needed, but controversial, change.

Yet, now that a new generation is coming to power, they can see more clearly that rights for women and gays are a fundamental pillar of the American spirit.  The sky has not fallen as incremental gains have been garnered over the years.   The same fervor and organizational skills that elected Barack Obama as the first post-boomer President can be mobilized to finish the job and enact a “more perfect” Equal Rights Amendment as the legacy of this generation.

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