ERA not a ‘Women’s Equality Amendment’

The recent reincarnation of the Equal Rights Amendment was a good idea — until its backers decided to change the name. The ERA has been reintroduced into both the House and the Senate, and it has more than 200 congressional co-sponsors. Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., chair of the Judiciary subcommittee on the Constitution, civil rights, and civil liberties, says the bill “is going to be one of the items at the top of the agenda.”

Unfortunately, the bill’s sponsors have changed the ERA’s name to the “Women’s Equality Amendment.” There’s a major problem with that, because if we’re going to have a national discussion on gender inequities — and it appears that we are — the problems faced by men need to be part of that discussion.

The most unequal and unfair treatment meted out to either gender is the mistreatment of men and fathers by family courts and by the domestic violence system. After a divorce or separation, dads are often pushed to the margins of their children’s lives, even though in most cases they’ve never been found culpable of any wrongdoing and did not seek to dissolve their marriages. Family courts often deprive men of shared custody and generally allow them only a few days a month to spend with their children.

While the government has created a vast, $5 billion-a-year bureaucracy dedicated to enforcing child support orders, there is almost no governmental effort made to enforce fathers’ visitation rights. When fathers are prevented from seeing their children in violation of court orders — as studies show is common — they must hire an attorney and go to court, and even then the orders aren’t enforced without repeated, expensive litigation.

Women’s advocates once did good work bringing the problem of domestic violence to public attention. Yet today’s policies are so extreme that they are victimizing many innocent men.

Over the past decade and a half, there has been an explosion in restraining orders, as new laws and services have made the orders easier to obtain. According to the Justice Department, 2 million restraining orders are issued each year in the United States, most of them based on domestic violence allegations.

When a restraining order is issued, the man is booted out of his own home and can be jailed if he tries to contact his own children, even though he has never been afforded the opportunity to defend himself. The subsequent hearings to determine whether the orders will be made permanent are often conducted in an assembly line fashion with little due process.

These orders often do not even involve an allegation of violence — often the “abuse” needed to get a restraining order can be “spoken” or “written,” and thus almost impossible to rebut in court.

During the 1990s, many states and law enforcement agencies adopted mandatory/presumptive arrest policies that virtually require officers to make arrests when responding to domestic violence calls. At the same time, many district attorneys have instituted “no drop” prosecution policies. These have led to large numbers of arrests and prosecutions in cases where it is very questionable whether the men actually committed any abuse.

In addition, the “primary aggressor doctrine” passed by some states and employed by many law enforcement agencies encourages officers to arrest men and only men in domestic disputes.

The Violence Against Women Act, passed in 1994, has provided the domestic violence establishment with more than $5 billion in funding. Yet male victims of domestic violence are excluded from most services, even though decades of research confirm that men comprise a significant minority of domestic violence victims.

The intent of the ERA during its heyday in the 1970s was to eliminate sex discrimination, and at that time sex discrimination was a significant problem for women. Now gender bias and discrimination — in practice, if not in the law — cut both ways. The Equal Rights Amendment, because it seeks to end any bias or discrimination based on sex, is appropriate. The “Women’s Equality Amendment,” which ignores many of the worst gender-based injustices, is not.

Family law attorney Jeffery M. Leving is author of the new HarperCollins book “Divorce Wars.” His Web site is www.dadsrights.com. Glenn Sacks’ Web site is www.GlennSacks.com.

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