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Women Could Lose What They Don't Realize They Have

February 28, 1996|ROBIN ABCARIAN

You remember, of course, the Equal Rights Amendment? That bland but controversial proposal that went down in political flames when the required number of states failed to ratify it nearly 14 years ago: "Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state on account of sex."

So simple. So just. So threatening.

I always thought it was tragic that the ERA was not ratified, always considered it a shame that people who suffer from discrimination on account of their gender are not entitled to the same constitutional protections afforded people on account of their race or ethnicity or national origin.

Imagine my surprise when I learned last week that women in California have, in fact, the equivalent of the Equal Rights Amendment. In California, thanks to a 1971 state Supreme Court decision voiding a law prohibiting women from working as bartenders, it is illegal to discriminate against women unless it is necessary to achieve a compelling purpose. In federal law, the standard is lower. (For instance, in one federal case, an employer persuaded the court that refusing to hire a woman with small children was not illegal discrimination, because it was important to the business to employ someone who could work long hours unimpeded by family responsibilities. In California, say legal scholars, that employer would probably have been guilty of breaking the law.)

California's high standard of protection against sex discrimination could plunge in November, if the so-called California civil rights initiative is passed by voters. The measure is a naked attack on affirmative action--bad enough--but it also contains a little-publicized clause that could have dire consequences for the women of this state.

Clause C, as the passage is known, will permit sex discrimination as long as it is "reasonably necessary to the normal operation of public employment, public education or public contracting."

The operative phrase: "reasonably necessary." Not a compelling justification, as our state law requires now, just a reasonably necessary one.

That lower standard, say legal scholars, is easy to prove in court, whereas the higher one is almost impossible.

"This is a dramatic change in the law," says USC law professor Erwin Chemerinsky, who has written about the potential legal impact of the CCRI.

"California women have no idea," says Constance Rice of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. "We have something most American women don't have. California women have the ERA! We have it by judicial fiat. . . . The court did it for us. . . . California women don't even know what they have got, let alone what they are about to lose."

I have no basis to judge whether Rice is overreacting, but I also have no reason to doubt her when she claims that, in the event that the initiative passes, "Twenty years from now, they will look back on this as the beginning of the end of civil rights laws."

Could be.

After all, several bills with similar language have been introduced in Congress. California, it has often been said, is a political bellwether. If the CCRI passes, you can bet it will fire up those in Congress who think the playing field for women and minorities was--contrary to available facts--leveled long ago.

Will women support this initiative if they truly understand what it means? Will they support it if they grasp that it could mean an end to women's centers on campuses, to mentoring and outreach programs aimed at increasing the numbers of women and minorities in public agencies or academic specialties such as engineering or math?

Will they support it if it means that a public employer might be able to successfully argue in court that he doesn't have to hire a woman who has young children?

Last week in Los Angeles, a coalition of women's groups spearheaded by the Feminist Majority announced their counterattack on the CCRI, which continues to fare well in polls. These activists believe that if women understand what they could lose, they will put a stake through the heart of the CCRI in November. They are launching a voter registration drive this summer on college campuses with what they hope will be 2,000 student volunteers from California and other states.

"Freedom summer '96" they call it, a potent and apt theft of the language used 32 years ago when more than 1,000 northern college students poured into Mississippi to register black citizens to vote.

The heart of the matter is this: Do we believe that the world encourages everyone equally? Do we believe that black children have the same shot at professional, business and academic success as white children? Do we believe that women face no barriers, no discrimination as they rise through the professional and academic ranks?

And do we honestly believe that every white man who loses out on a promotion or a contract has been ripped off by someone of inferior talents?

Of course we don't. Not if we're living in the real world, anyway.

Vote your conscience in November.

* Robin Abcarian's column appears Wednesdays and Sundays. Readers may write to her at the Los Angeles Times, Life & Style, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053.

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