The Equal Rights Amendment

has been reintroduced. My sense is that the public, even in relatively conservative states, is much more open to the core principle of the government's generally not discriminating based on sex than it was back when the ERA stalled a couple of decades ago.

On the other hand, I suspect that there'd be much less of a sense of need, given that the Supreme Court's sex equality jurisprudence is now itself decades old, and pretty clearly not going anywhere. The formal test is that sex classifications are constitutional only if the government shows an "exceedingly persuasive" justification, which consists of showing "at least that the [challenged] classification serves 'important governmental objectives and that the discriminatory means employed' are 'substantially related to the achievement of those objectives,'" and that the justification "not rely on overbroad generalizations about the different talents, capacities, or preferences of males and females." In practice, the test is very hard to meet, so it's hard to point to many sex classifications that are now constitutional but that the ERA would clearly or even likely ban.

What's more, those current sex classifications that are most vulnerable are also ones that many people -- including ones who are far from antifeminist -- may have qualms about invalidating:

1. Limits on Women in Combat: It's generally assumed that the Court would uphold such limits under the current "intermediate scrutiny" test, possibly on the theory that allowing women in combat would pose extremely high risk that captured women will be raped, and that this will not only hurt the women but lead to undue pressure not to surrender, or to launch even very risky rescues. Whether or not this theory is clearly correct, I expect that the Court would defer to the political branches' judgments on this score, even if the limits on women in combat are tightened back to what they were some years ago. Would most ERA backers support constitutionally invalidating these limits, as the ERA may well do, given its categorical language?

2. Sex-Based Affirmative Action Programs: Such programs are in many situations constitutional under the Court's current caselaw. But they would be clearly forbidden by the text of the ERA, "Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex." And my guess is that the current Court's relatively strong focus on text, coupled with its relative hostility to affirmative action programs (compared to the views of the 1970s and early 1980s Court), would lead it to read the ERA as outlawing legal preferences either for women or men, whether or not the preferences are billed as "remedial."

3. Exclusion of Boys from Girls' Sports Teams: This too is generally seen as constitutional, and I suspect it's even more popular than affirmative action in other contexts. Yet the flat language of the ERA would likely ban it.

4. Limitation of Marriage to Opposite-Sex Couples: Many supporters of same-sex marriage, including those who challenge the opposite-sex-only rule as unconstitutional, argue that the opposite-sex-only rule discriminates based on sex. Some (though not most) state judges that have considered the question have indeed concluded that state constitutional ERA provisions mandate sex-blind marriage laws. It seems quite plausible (though not certain) that enactment of the ERA would increase the likelihood that courts would indeed mandate recognition of same-sex marriages. The arguments that the ERA would lead to such a result can no longer be dismissed, as it once was, as a "hysterical" "emotional scare tactic" "canards."

So it's not quite clear to me what will likely happen given all this (and given the other objections that might be raised, such as the perennial but nontrivial questions related to single-sex locker rooms and the like). Nor is it clear to me what people should do if they believe -- as I do -- that the government generally shouldn't discriminate based on sex, but that some narrow exceptions are proper.

On the one hand, enacting the ERA will cement the broad antidiscrimination principle, and perhaps defeating it might in some measure undermine the principle, among some members of the public or even among some judges; and it's possible that judges will carve out some sensible exceptions from the ERA's flat ban if the ERA is enacted. On the other, it seems highly likely that the constitutional nondiscrimination rule is here to stay, and maybe it's better for judges to continue developing exceptions from this rule when it's basically a judicially developed interpretation of the Equal Protection Clause, rather than for judges to create exceptions from a categorical guarantee.

My preference would be for an ERA that has explicit exceptions for the few areas where exceptions seem necessary, but I doubt that this is a politically viable option. The question then is which is better -- the status quo, under which there is a broad but not securely textually anchored constitutional prohibition of most forms of sex discrimination, or an ERA that expressly bars sex discrimination but goes literally further than I think it should. My sense is that the status quo is probably good enough, because it seems so solidly entrenched; but it's not an open-and-shut matter, it seems to me.

Thanks to Bob Krumm for the pointer.