After decades of advocacy, a bill that would cement gender equity in state law was passed on the House floor Thursday.

The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) would put a measure on the 2020 ballot letting Minnesota voters decide whether to alter the state's Constitution to say people have equal rights regardless of gender.

"We want to take this question of the Equal Rights Amendment to the people of Minnesota and decide if they want equality, by law, unabridged, according to gender," said Rep. Mary Kunesh-Podein, D-New Brighton.

Members of the Democratic-dominated House, many wearing green "ERA YES" pins, passed the bill on a vote of 72-55 after passionate debate. But supporters of the change acknowledged that a much larger hurdle remains in the Republican-controlled Senate. Republican legislators said the bill could have unintended consequences. House Republicans raised concerns that the amendment could have implications for abortion, and they questioned the use of the term "gender."

"It's a victory to pass something in one body, even if you can't pass it in the other body," Sen. Sandra Pappas, D-St. Paul, said. "It can take a few years to do these things. I've tried to, without dampening enthusiasm, be realistic."

If the ERA doesn't pass this year, it will be an election issue in 2020, she said.

But after years of waiting, supporters of the ERA don't want another delay. They would also like the ERA vote to align with the 100th anniversary of women's suffrage next year.

Beyond the symbolic meaning, advocates said the change in law is critical to protect all Minnesotans' rights.

"Women were left behind the door when the Constitution was written. And that was true of both our federal Constitution and our state Constitution. We were intentionally excluded," said Betty Folliard, a former legislator and founder of ERA Minnesota.

This would help courts deal with continuing issues of gender discrimination in areas such as pay inequity and pregnancy discrimination, she said. Large wage gaps exist across gender and race, said Rep. Rena Moran, D-St. Paul, and while this bill won't solve that, it's an important step.

The House measure would ask voters: "Shall the Minnesota Constitution be amended to provide that equality under the law must not be abridged or denied on account of gender?"

Abortion opponents have been urging lawmakers to amend the language to include a line saying, "This section does not grant, secure, or deny any right related to the accessibility or provision of abortion services, or state funding for those services."

Some people have argued there cannot be equality without the right to abortion, Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life Executive Director Scott Fischbach said, and abortion has hindered ERA proposals in other states.

"Most pro-lifers that I know do very much believe in equality," he said. "But we just want to make sure abortion is not included in this debate."

Some legislators also noted concerns with the use of "gender" rather than "sex" in the bill. Kunesh-Podein said gender is a more inclusive term, but Rep. Peggy Scott, R-Andover, said it's not a well-defined term and "sex" provides more clarity. Scott and others argued that people who are transgender or identify as neither male nor female should not be included.

In addition to the measure debated Thursday, another bill aims to make the ERA federal law. The U.S. House and Senate passed the ERA in the 1970s, but too few states ratified the measure by the deadline required to make it part of the country's Constitution. The other bill would support removing the deadline, with the goal of getting 38 states to ratify the amendment.

Jessie Van Berkel • 651-925-5044