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Reagan Record on Civil Rights Called a 'Travesty' in Report

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Washington--The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, a national coalition of 157 labor, civil-rights, and religious groups, last week attacked the Reagan Administration's record on enforcing civil-rights laws as a "travesty."

At a press conference here, leaders of the group released a report claiming Justice Department officials have permitted political pressures to "corrupt fair administration of the law."

Human Rights Low Priority

"Civil and human rights occupy a low rung on the totem pole of this Administration's concerns," said Benjamin L. Hooks, chairman of the coalition.

The 75-page report said Administration activities were "repudiating Brown v. Board of Education," the landmark 1954 Supreme Court ruling that outlawed segregated schools.

"The Justice Department has most explicitly rejected settled law and defaulted on its enforcement role," the report said, illustrating that point with a statement from William Bradford Reynolds, who, as the department's assistant attorney general for civil rights, has primary responsibility for enforcing federal civil-rights laws.

"We are not going to compel children who don't choose to have an integrated education to have one," Mr. Reynolds was quoted as saying in The New York Times last November.

Likewise, the Justice Department has "ignored or repudiated settled legal doctrine in areas affecting the rights of children to equal educational opportunity," particularly in attempting to grant tax exemptions to discriminatory private schools, the report said.

Legal Position Reversed

In addition, the department "has abruptly reversed the legal positions of its predecessors, switching sides while cases were pending before the Supreme Court."

The report cited as examples: the withdrawal of the federal government's position supporting a free public education for the children of illegal aliens in Texas; a shift from support for the Seattle school system's voluntary desegregation program to support for the state of Washington's attempts to declare the desegregation plan illegal; and the shift from opposition to, to support for, the Chicago school system's desegregation program, which until the policy shift had been considered by the department to be in violation of a federal court order.

The report also charged that "members of Congress and political advisers to the Administration have boldly and successfully pressured the leaders of the department to change and weaken positions in civil-rights cases."

Republican legislators who lobbied for the policy reversals included Senators Jesse A. Helms of North Carolina, Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, Thad Cochran of Mississippi, and Jeremiah Denton of Alabama, as well as Representative Trent Lott of Mississippi, the report alleged.

Involved in Policy Shift

In addition, Lyn Nofziger, the former assistant to the President for political affairs, was involved in the policy shift in the Seattle desegregation lawsuit, the report said. A memorandum sent last August by Mr. Nofziger to Attorney General William French Smith, which was quoted in the report, said, "Surely if we are going to change the direction of this country, mandatory school busing is a good place to make changes--as I thought we would do because that was what the President wanted."

Neither Mr. Smith nor Mr. Reynolds has seen the report, according to a Justice Department spokesman.

In a related development, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights wrote President Reagan a sharply worded letter expressing "alarm" at "efforts to end federal leadership in promoting equal educational opportunity."

''Over the years, this commission consistently has found that only a strong federal commitment to enforcing these civil-rights laws can make their promise of equal educational opportunity a reality," said the Feb. 12 letter, which was made public by the commission.

Progress Noted

The letter added that "as enforcement improved, we have noted progress in some areas. The problems Congress intended to combat in enacting these laws have not disappeared, however."

The commission, an autonomous federal agency with the responsibility for collecting information and investigating civil-rights complaints, attacked many of the same federal activities and policies, as did the leadership conference.

In addition, the commission criticized efforts in Congress to curtail the authority of the federal courts and the Justice Department in school-desegregation cases; possible changes in federal rules prohibiting sex discrimination; and the Administration's rescission of the so-called Lau regulations for bilingual education, which, the commission said, would have given children "the opportunity to learn English without falling behind in other subjects."

The commission's letter also criticized funding reductions for the Ed-ucation Department's office for civil rights and the consolidation of desegregation aid into a block grant. The latter move, the letter said, will jeopardize "successful voluntary desegregation efforts" and, by eliminating the civil-rights reviews that have been required before school districts could qualify for desegregation aid, will remove a tool that often identified and led to the correction of violations. "[Civil-rights laws] and the policies developed and enforced to carry out their nondiscrimination requirements are landmarks in the recent progress toward undoing a legacy of discrimination tolerated, even imposed, by state and local governments," the commission's letter said.

Protection Endangered

It added: "Congressional and executive branch initiatives to dismantle the essential federal civil-rights effort in education threaten to reverse more than a generation of progress toward equal educational opportunity and strip our nation's young people of the protections they must have if they are to be assured an equal chance in education and, ultimately, employment."

The letter was signed for the commissioners by Arthur S. Flemming, who is to be replaced as chairman by a Reagan appointee.

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