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‘The end is in sight’: ERA moves closer to ratification in Virginia

Resolutions to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment swiftly passed the General Assembly Wednesday. The House version passed 59-41 and the Senate bill cleared with a 28-12 vote.

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By Zobia Nayyar

Resolutions to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment swiftly passed the General Assembly Wednesday. The House version passed 59-41 and the Senate bill cleared with a 28-12 vote. The next step will be for each resolution to pass the other chamber, sometime in February.

“As the House sponsor of the bill, it is an honor to lead the effort in this historic moment for women,” said Delegate Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-Prince William, in a released statement. “This vote demonstrates how greater female representation in government can significantly improve the lives of women across the country. We are here and will be heard.”

VAratifyERA, a campaign focused on the state’s ratification tweeted shortly after passage of the resolutions: “The end is in sight!”

First lady Pam Northam and daughter Aubrey Northam appeared at the House gallery to witness the moment. They joined a crowd of mostly women who cheered loudly when the measure passed.

The governor and Democratic legislators have championed the ERA as a legislative priority, promising this year the amendment wouldn’t die in the House as it has in past years.

“Today is an absolutely historic day for our Commonwealth and a major milestone in the fight for equality in this nation,” said Attorney General Mark Herring in a statement.  “Women in America deserve to have equality guaranteed in the Constitution and Virginians should be proud that we will be the state that makes it happen.”

Though Virginia passage of the ERA is seen as a symbol of the new Democratic leadership, the effort may be too late. The Department of Justice announced last week that the ERA can no longer be ratified because its deadline expired decades ago.

U.S. Assistant Attorney General Steven Engel agreed that the deadline cannot be revived.

“We conclude that Congress had the constitutional authority to impose a deadline on the ratification of the ERA, and because that deadline has expired, the ERA Resolution is no longer pending before the states,” Engel said.

Carroll Foy said in an interview last week that she believes the DOJ legal counsel’s opinion will not stop the ERA’s progress.

“I am more than confident that this is just another effort by people who want to stop progress and who don’t believe in women’s equality,” Carroll Foy said. “This is another one of their concerted efforts to deny us fundamental rights and equal protections. But the time has come; we are unrelenting. We will not be deterred, and we will have our full constitutional equality.”

The amendment seeks to guarantee equal rights in the U.S. Constitution regardless of sex. It passed Congress in 1972 but could not collect the three-fourths state support needed to ratify it. Efforts to ratify the ERA gained momentum in recent years when it passed in Nevada and Illinois.

Five states –Idaho, Kentucky, Nebraska, Tennessee and South Dakota — have stated their intent to rescind their ratification, which ERA opponents say could prevent it from being added to the constitution, according to VAratifyERA. The ERA organization said that “Article V of the Constitution authorizes states to ratify amendments but does not give states the power to rescind their ratification.” The organization points out that the 14th, 15th and 19th amendments were added to the Constitution despite some state efforts to rescind ratification.

Herring said that he is “preparing to take any steps necessary to ensure that Virginia is recognized as the 38th ratifying state, that the will of Virginians is carried out, and that the ERA is added to our Constitution, as it should be.”

Female-led groups united at the General Assembly last week, urging representatives not to pass legislation ratifying the ERA. Groups such as The Family Foundation of Virginia, Eagle Forum, Students For Life of America and Concerned Women for America said they oppose ERA ratification because the amendment does not explicitly support women’s equality.

“The ERA does not put women in the Constitution,” said Anne Schlafly Cori, chairman of Eagle Forum, a conservative and pro-family group. “It puts sex in the Constitution, and sex has a lot of different definitions.”

President of the Virginia chapter of the The Family Foundation Victoria Cobb believe women have already achieved equality.

“Today I am different than men and yet equal under the U.S. Constitution, and Virginia Constitution and Virginia laws,” Cobb said.

A statement released last week by the National Archives and Records Administration, the agency that certifies ratification of amendments, indicated that the agency will follow DOJ guidance that the deadline to ratify has passed “unless otherwise directed by a final court order.”

Still, enthusiasm was palpable Wednesday at the State Capitol.

“The people of Virginia spoke last November, voting a record number of women into the House of Delegates and asking us to ratify the ERA,” said Democratic Majority Leader Charniele Herring in a released statement. “It is inspiring to see the amendment finally be considered, voted on, and passed – long-awaited recognition that women deserve.”

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The Capital News Service is a flagship program of VCU’s Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture. In the program, journalism students cover news in Richmond and across Virginia and distribute their stories, photos, and other content to more than 100 newspapers, television and radio stations, and news websites.

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Marcus alert bill passes House and Senate, moves to Northam’s desk

Both chambers of the Virginia General Assembly have approved a proposal to establish a statewide system that pairs teams of mental health professionals and peer recovery specialists with police officers responding to mental health crises.

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By Andrew Ringle

Both chambers of the Virginia General Assembly have approved a proposal to establish a statewide system that pairs teams of mental health professionals and peer recovery specialists with police officers responding to mental health crises.

The Senate approved the measure by a vote of 24-15 on Thursday. The House gave the legislation the green light in September with a vote of 57-39. The proposal now needs a signature from Gov. Ralph Northam to become law.

House Bill 5043 is sponsored by Del. Jeff Bourne, D-Richmond. Dubbed the mental health awareness response and community understanding services, or Marcus alert system, the bill honors the life of Marcus-David Peters, who was shot and killed in 2018 during an encounter with Richmond police. Peters, a 24-year-old Virginia Commonwealth University alumnus and high school biology teacher, was naked and unarmed during the shooting. After running into traffic on the interstate, Peters charged at an officer who deployed a Taser and then fired his gun. Peters’ family said he was experiencing a mental health crisis.

Bourne’s bill requires law enforcement to consider mitigating “impact to care” by having officers not wearing their uniforms and using unmarked vehicles, when possible.

Dana Schrad, executive director of the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police, did not directly comment on Bourne’s bill, but she said mental health calls are “volatile and dangerous” and that co-response teams require extensive training for officers and mental health workers.

“Additionally, there needs to be sufficient funding to make both trained officers and mental health workers who serve on co-response teams available at any time of day,” Schrad said in a message.

Schrad said the organization supports efforts to create co-responder teams for mental health calls. She said the commonwealth must address the “overwhelming need” to improve mental health and preventative services locally.

“However, we cannot support efforts that would disarm law enforcement officers and take them out of uniform on mental health calls,” Schrad said.

Bourne’s bill would require Virginia Behavioral Health and Developmental Services, in collaboration with Criminal Justice Services, to create two plans by July 1, 2021. One creates a written plan for the development of a Marcus alert system, and another sets guidelines for law enforcement. By the same date, localities must also create a database identifying individuals with mental or behavioral health illness, developmental or intellectual disability or brain injury. Such individuals or a legal guardian may voluntarily provide the individual’s address and relevant health information to the database, which would be accessible to 911 and the Marcus alert system.

The bill would require Virginia Behavioral Health and Developmental Services and Criminal Justice Services to establish guidelines and training programs for crisis teams, call center employees, clinical staff, and Marcus alert system users by Dec. 1, 2021.

Every locality must have a Marcus alert system with care teams by July 1, 2022, according to the bill.

Mental Health America of Virginia Executive Director Bruce Cruser, who called the bill “a significant step forward” during a House committee meeting on Aug. 25, said the proposal may need further review in order to promote coordinated responses across localities.

“We’re just anxious to see how we can work out language that is coordinated,” Cruser said.

Opinions vary among mental health personnel regarding potential safety risks posed by crisis situations, Cruser said.

“If a mental health professional is being put in harm’s way, I mean obviously that’s a concern,” he said. “But I think how the system is structured is really the key.”

Cruser said there’s uncertainty in the mental health field regarding how the system would work in different areas across Virginia and whether personnel would be equipped to respond to crises.

“Some are well trained in de-escalation, and some are not,” Cruser said. “That’s really one of the challenges here, is to work with local community service boards and localities to determine the best way to intervene that brings about the desired result, which is less injury to anyone and better outcomes.”

Cruser said Mental Health America of Virginia supports the goals of Bourne’s legislation, but that a larger effort is needed to prevent crisis situations from happening in the first place.

“If there’s a call for service and it’s a mental health call, well then the response should be mental health-focused,” Cruser said. “The law enforcement response should be reserved for what law enforcement is trained to deal with best. The challenge is how you determine the nature of the call in the first place.”

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Virginia female lawyers, lawmakers remember Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death is being mourned by the country, and in Virginia, lawyers and legislators are reflecting on her legacy. Some called her a role model, others called her a trailblazer, but they all admired the impact she left. 

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By Noah Fleischman

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death is being mourned by the country, and in Virginia, female lawyers and legislators are reflecting on her legacy. Some called her a role model, others called her a trailblazer, but they all admired the impact she left.

Ginsburg died Friday at age 87 from complications from metastatic pancreatic cancer.

Alison McKee, president of the Virginia Bar Association, said Ginsburg was one of the most empowering women in the law profession. The VBA is a membership organization of state attorneys who promote legislative changes.

“She was an extraordinary force in attempts to overcome gender inequality,” McKee said. “Overall, to borrow a phrase from Sheryl Sandberg, she leaned in for all women in our profession and helped to close the gap on gender inequality.”

Ginsburg’s fight for gender equality changed a Virginia college’s admissions process in the 1990s. She wrote the majority opinion in the 1996 case that allowed women to attend the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington. VMI was the last male-only college in the United States until the Supreme Court’s ruling.

Ginsburg wrote in the majority opinion that since a 1971 ruling, the Court “has repeatedly recognized” laws incompatible with the equal protection principle and that denied women access “simply because they are women, full citizenship stature-equal opportunity to aspire, achieve, participate in and contribute to society based on their individual talents and capacities.”

Ginsburg was also a longtime advocate for the Equal Rights Amendment, or ERA, a proposed amendment to the U.S. Constitution that seeks to guarantee equal rights for all regardless of sex. The ERA first passed Congress in 1972 but could not collect the three-fourths state support needed to ratify it. In January, Virginia became the final state needed to ratify the amendment, though the 1982 deadline has passed. A congressional bill to eliminate the ratification deadline passed the House in February and is sitting in a Senate committee. Over the years Ginsburg has still vocalized support for the ERA, though in February she said she would like “it to start over.”

Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, was a co-patron of the ERA in Virginia.

“I think we’re carrying on her work, carrying on her legacy to make life, liberty, and justice for all include all and include women equally,” McClellan said. “We carried on her work with that, very much an inspiration there too.”

Del. Hala Ayala, D-Woodbridge, who was a co-patron on the ERA in the House of Delegates, called Ginsburg “our firewall to protect civil rights, voting rights and everything that we fight for” in a statement Friday night. 

“My life’s work for women’s equal justice, including championing the Equal Rights Amendment in the Virginia House of Delegates, was inspired by Justice Ginsburg’s work,” Ayala wrote. “Her determined spirit gave me the motivation to fight every day for what is right, knowing that we would make our Commonwealth and our country a better place.”

Ginsburg was a pioneer for women in the law profession, becoming the second woman appointed to the Supreme Court in 1993 after Sandra Day O’Connor.

Margaret Hardy, president of the Virginia Women Attorneys Association, said seeing someone that looked like her in the law profession is “critically important,” and that’s why diversity is important—so everyone has a role model.

“I think that just seeing a woman because in her case, in many instances, she was the woman, not just one of many,” Hardy said. “I think just for anyone seeing someone in a profession that you’re entering who looks just like you is an inspiration.”

Lucia Anna “Pia” Trigiani, former president of the Virginia Bar Association, called Ginsburg a role model for all lawyers, not just women.

“For her to do what she did, she also showed not only women that it could be done, but men,” Trigiani said. “She showed everyone that it could be done.”

McClellan equated Ginsburg to civil rights lawyer and former Justice Thurgood Marshall.

“I think she for women’s rights was what Thurgood Marshall was for civil rights,” McClellan said. “I as a woman lawyer, as a woman lawmaker, stand on her shoulders.”

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Virginia bill seeks to guarantee free school meals to students advances to Senate

The Virginia House of Delegates passed a bill this month to provide free school meals for 109,000 more public school students in the commonwealth.

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By Aliviah Jones

The Virginia House of Delegates passed a bill this month to provide free school meals for 109,000 more public school students in the commonwealth.

House Bill 5113, introduced by Del. Danica Roem, D-Prince William, passed the chamber unanimously. Roem’s bill requires eligible public elementary and secondary schools to apply for the Community Eligibility Provision through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service.

“School food should be seen as an essential service that is free for everyone regardless of their income,” Roem said.

The program allows all students in an eligible school to receive free breakfast and lunch. Currently, 425 schools are eligible for CEP but don’t take part in the program, according to a document that details the financial impact of the legislation. More than 420 schools and 200,000 students participated in CEP during the 2018 to 2019 school year, according to the Virginia Department of Education.

The bill allows eligible schools to opt-out of the program if participating is not financially possible.
Most Virginia food banks have purchased twice as much food each month since the pandemic started when compared to last year, according to Eddie Oliver, executive director of the Federation of Virginia Food Banks.

“We’re just seeing a lot of need out there and we know that school meal programs are really the front line of ensuring that kids in Virginia have the food they need to learn and thrive,” Oliver said.

Virginia school districts qualify for CEP if they have 40% or more enrolled students in a specified meal program, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). It also includes homeless, runaway, migrant, and foster children, Roem said.

Sandy Curwood, Director of the Virginia Department of Education Office of School Nutrition Programs, said school districts receive federal reimbursement based on a formula.

“Making sure that children have access to good healthy food, and particularly through school meals I think is a great opportunity,” Curwood said.

The federal government will reimburse schools that have more than 62.5% students who qualify for free meals, Roem said. Schools with between 55% and 62.4% of students enrolled will receive between 80% and 99% reimbursement.

“If HB 5113 is the law, how their children will eat during the school day will be one less worry for students and their families,”, said Semora Ward, a community organizer for the Hampton Roads-based Virginia Black Leadership Organizing Collaborative. The meals are available whether children are physically in schools or attending virtual classes.

The Virginia Black Leadership Organizing Collaborative has raised $8,000 in the past three years for unpaid school meals in Hampton and Newport News, according to Ward.

“While we are pleased with these efforts and the outpouring of community support, we should have never had to do this in the first place,” she said.

Roem was one of several legislators that took on the USDA earlier this year to not require students to be present when receiving free school meals during the pandemic. The Virginia General Assembly passed Roem’s bill earlier this year that allows school districts to distribute excess food to students eligible for the School Breakfast Program or National School Lunch Program administered by the USDA.

HB 5113 has been referred to the Senate Education and Health Committee.

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