ALBANY, NY — The New York State Legislature on Friday passed a measure that, if fully passed, would enshrine in the state Constitution the right to seek an abortion and access contraception.
The measure — the Equal Rights Amendment — puts New York at the forefront of legal efforts to protect reproductive rights after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last week, ending long-established abortion protections.
But the scope of the amendment is much broader. It prohibits the government from discriminating against anyone based on a list of qualifications including race, ethnicity, national origin, disability or gender – specifically noting sexual orientation, identity and gender expression and pregnancy on the list of protected conditions.
“We can no longer afford to play a game of chance because not only is the right going to take everything to court, but they are starting to control all the courts,” said Senator Liz Krueger, the architect of the amendment. . “So it’s increasingly important to enshrine things in state constitutions as well as state laws.”
Timing, they said, was also important.
“I think this first pass is when New Yorkers want to voice their support for abortion rights and reproductive health care — as well as protect other New Yorkers,” said Sen. Brad Hoylman, Democrat. of Manhattan, which co-sponsored the bill. .
Republicans were split on the amendment, particularly in the Senate, where seven voted in favor and 13 against. Some of those who opposed it, including Staten Island Sen. Andrew Lanza, argued that Democrats had overstepped the mark and produced text that could, in fact, discriminate against certain religious views.
“I don’t think anyone should be discriminated against – regardless of your opinion on abortion,” Lanza said.
More than a dozen states and the District of Columbia affirmed or expanded abortion rights ahead of the Supreme Court ruling, while another dozen Republican-led states had legislation in place. banning abortion after the publication of the decision.
During the final days of the 2022 legislative session in New York City, lawmakers passed a set of bills aimed at protecting abortion seekers and providers. But after the Supreme Court issued rulings on abortion and concealed weapons, Governor Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, ordered the Legislature to return to Albany on Thursday for a special session.
After a long night of negotiations, the measure passed the Senate without debate. The Assembly voted to pass it late Friday evening.
Yet, no change will happen right away.
Amending the state constitution is a process that has been going on for years in New York City, requiring the passage of two separately elected legislatures and then the approval of voters in a referendum. By passing it this year, Democratic leaders hope to secure approval next year and get it to voters in 2024, when high turnout is expected in a presidential election year.
Although Ms. Hochul had no official role in approving such an amendment, she was a vocal champion of the measure and included the effort in campaign ads.
Supporters had hoped to pass the amendment at the end of the 2022 session, which ended in early June. But the effort stalled after several prominent religious groups, including the Catholic Conference and the Council on Jewish Community Relations, opposed the measure for various reasons.
A key question was whether the act of enshrining new protected classes in the state constitution would in any way diminish existing religious protections.
Early drafts of the bills did not include religion or creed on the list of protected classes, although religious rights appear elsewhere in the state Constitution. Religious groups protested vigorously.
Marc Stern, general counsel for the American Jewish Committee, said that while he supported adding protections for transgender and reproductive rights, he felt it was unacceptable to omit religion from the specific list.
“What they have in mind are the wedding photographer and the bakery cases,” Stern said, referring to previous court cases involving companies that denied their services to same-sex couples. “That’s why they exclude religion and belief.”
Mr Stern said he believed lawmakers wanted same-sex couples to win these cases – which he said he considered putting “a thumb in the balance”.
On Friday, lawmakers had reached a compromise, adding religion to the list of protected classes so that it would be on an equal footing with gender and race.
Lawmakers said the compromise would ensure the state has stronger protections than ever before for members of protected classes and that the rights of one group would not diminish those of another.
“This amendment is really a shield, not a sword,” Mr. Hoylman said.
A provision that would have lowered the standard of discrimination – to include unintentional discrimination that results in “disparate impact” – has been removed from the legislation, to the disappointment of advocates. But a clause in the law leaves the door open to future changes.
While the Catholic Conference continued to oppose the measure, other religious groups, including the Jewish Community Relations Council, voiced their support, saying they were pleased to have found “common ground to add these protections to all New Yorkers, including protecting the right to religious freedom.”
Other supporters, including the Civil Liberties Union of New York, also applauded the passage, calling it a crucial first step in addressing the “existential threat” posed by the Supreme Court.
“Our state constitution, if this amendment passes, will say, ‘Not here in New York and not under our watch.’ Our Equal Protection Clause can serve as a model,” said NYCLU Policy Director Lee Rowland, adding, “This is a big win.