Minnesota equal rights amendment revamped to include protections for abortion, gender care

sign that reads "Era Now" and people holding sign that reads "Era Yes"
Members of Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) group hold signs during the first day of the 2023 Legislative session on Jan. 3, 2023.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

Updated: 2 p.m.

After coming up short at the Capitol for more than a decade, backers of a Minnesota equal rights amendment view 2024 as their moment. 

Ahead of the 2024 legislative session, they’re tweaking a proposed addition to Minnesota’s Constitution to address new concerns around equality. That has meant explicitly spelling out rights to pregnancy and pregnancy outcomes, though authoring groups have not formally agreed to the final draft.

The result could yield the most expansive equal rights policy in the country. Advocates say the change is critical in this political moment, while opponents say it’s a “Trojan horse” that could come with unintended consequences.

“Minnesotans value freedom. We value our reproductive freedom, and we value our rights. And that’s what this new language reflects,” said Betty Folliard, founder of ERA Minnesota.

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Last year, lawmakers approved a resolution directing Congress to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. While supporters consider that a step forward, they’re pressing DFL leaders to bring a state version before voters as soon as this fall.

“Our Constitution was written 166 years ago, and it did not have an equal rights center or equal rights clause in it. And it desperately needs refreshing,” Folliard said. “This is the year for the ERA.”

In 2023, the Minnesota Senate passed the bill that would let voters decide a constitutional amendment guaranteeing equal rights no matter someone’s race, color, creed, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, age, disability, ancestry or national origin. But the House of Representatives didn’t take it up for a vote.

In the months since, ERA Minnesota, along with civil rights, reproductive health and other groups have been workshopping the amendment. And they’ve added provisions to include protections for people seeking abortions and gender-affirming care in Minnesota.

As conservative states aim to limit access to the services, Minnesota should take the opposite approach, Gender Justice Executive Director Megan Peterson said. 

“Minnesota should be very crystal clear about what our values are, about our intention to be a safe and welcoming place for all people, no matter who they are. And that discrimination is not a Minnesota value,” Peterson said.

While some Republicans backed the amendment in its original form, GOP leaders said that rolling in additional provisions would likely make the effort partisan.

“A statewide constitutional amendment should unite people, not divide them,” said Senate Minority Leader Mark Johnson, R-East Grand Forks. “Stitching every issue into one Frankenstein ballot question is divisive and political, and it will come back to haunt them. Minnesotans value consensus and it’s unfair and inappropriate to engage in such brazen political gamesmanship with the state constitution.” 

Kathryn Ringham holds up an ERA YES sign
Kathryn Ringham holds up an ERA YES sign in the State Capitol rotunda during a rally for the Equal Rights Amendment in St. Paul.
Glen Stubbe | Star Tribune via AP 2022

Cementing abortion, gender-affirming care access

The DFL-led Legislature in 2023 passed laws guaranteeing the right to reproductive care and services that help align a person’s gender expression with their identity. They also set in place legal protections for those who seek out those services, along with the people who provide them.

They said it’s important to seal them in at a higher level, in the event that a future Legislature or court takes a different view. 

“Anytime you pass a law, there is always the chance that when the balance of power shifts, that there could be rollbacks,” said Rep. Kaohly Her, DFL-St. Paul. “And so that’s why I think it is so important that we talk about bodily autonomy, we’ve left it up to the courts for far too long.”

Her carried the ERA last year and chairs the Reproductive Freedom Caucus at the Capitol. If approved, the amendment could come before voters as soon as this fall. A majority of voters would have to support it for the amendment to take effect.

DFL leaders at the Legislature said the amendment has a clearer path this year.

“We needed some more time to try to make sure we got the language exactly right and took a pause to do that work over the summer,” House Majority Leader Jamie Long, DFL-Minneapolis, told MPR News. “I think we’re going to enact an ERA in 2024 or put one on the ballot.”

Mobilizing a ‘No’ campaign

It won’t come without opposition. Conservative groups have opposed the equal rights amendment and said they’re already gearing up for a “No” campaign.

“We have seen people coming out in incredible numbers to say, ‘No more. You have done too much, Governor Walz. You have done too much, DFL leadership, there is too much abortion on demand in Minnesota. We want reasonable laws,’” said Cathy Blaeser, co-executive director of Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life. 

Moses Bratrud, with the Minnesota Family Council, said the measure goes too far. He said his organization would mobilize a campaign to block the amendment if lawmakers approve it.

“We think a large majority, in fact, believe that Minnesota’s current protections for equal rights are sufficient and that they don’t want to see a Trojan horse bringing taxpayer-funded abortion and gender reassignment surgery into the state budget,” Bratrud said.

Lawmakers are set to return to St. Paul on Feb. 12 for the 2024 legislative session. Folliard and other ERA advocates said they’ll be ready to greet them with a rally planned on opening day.

“We’ll have a great rally, a lot of energy, and then we’re going to go make this happen,” Folliard said.