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Pennsylvania E.R.A Invoked in Challenge To School's 'Boys Only'

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Pennsylvania's Equal Rights Amendment (era) is the basis for a court challenge to the all-male admissions policy of an elementary and secondary school for indigent children in Philadelphia.

The complaint, brought this summer by two women's-rights groups on behalf of a 12-year-old Philadelphia girl, is believed to be the first attempt to use a state's equal-rights law to gain admission for women to an educational institution, according to attorneys for the groups.

The suit charges that Girard College, by admitting only poor boys, is violating a 1971 amendment to the state's constitution that bars discrimination on the basis of sex.

A residential school for poor boys who are "functional orphans"--children from families in which one parent is unable to function as a parent--Girard College is privately supported, but publicly administered, according to a spokesman for the school.

The school was established in 1848 by the estate of Stephen Girard, a sea captain and reputedly one of the richest men in the country at the time of his death in 1831. Mr. Girard stipulated that the school should admit only poor, white, male orphans.

The provisions of Mr. Girard's will have been modified through court action several times in the past, most notably in 1968 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that its racial restriction was unconstitutional.

The current complaint, filed by the Women's Law Project in Philadelphia and the National Organization for Women (now) Legal Defense and Education Fund, seeks admission to the school for Sharone Gray, who was interested in the school because of "its impressive resources," said Susan Cary Nicholas, a lawyer for the Women's Law Project. In addition to academic, vocational, and athletic programs, the school provides complete residential care--including clothing--for boys 6 to 18 years old at no charge.

The solicitor for Philadelphia's Board of City Trusts--which administers the Girard estate and governs the school--was unable to comment on the case last week because, he said, the board had not been notified officially of the complaint.

Pennsylvania is one of 16 states with equal-rights amendments to their constitutions, according to Ms. Nicholas. Similar to the recently defeated Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the Pennsylvania law provides that "equality of rights under the law cannot be denied or abridged on the basis of sex," she said.

The suit is one aspect of "era Impact Project," a joint effort by now and the Philadelphia Women's Law Project to foster the use of state equal-rights amendments to gain equity for women.

For the time being, Ms. Nicholas said, Pennsylvania is the primary focus of their court efforts because its "courts have been generally sympathetic to sex equity in the context of the state era--they have delivered a wide range of opinions and coherent analyses for using the provision."

Sixteen former high-ranking federal officials announced the creation this summer of what some observers are calling a U.S. Commission on Civil Rights "in exile." The panel was created in order to monitor "regressive actions" taken by the Reagan Administration and the Congress that "jeopardize the gains made by minorities, women, and poor people over the past two decades."

Education will rank high on the priority list of the recently created Citizens Commission on Civil Rights, according to Arthur S. Flemming, a member of the new group, whom President Reagan dismissed this year as the chairman of the federal agency that monitors civil rights. The new panel's first task, he said, will be to analyze the implications of the proposed Helms-Johnston anti-busing amendment.

The commission also plans to investigate several Administration initiatives, including tuition tax credits, the return of prayer to public schools, the curtailment of federal aid for school integration, and the granting of tax exemptions to private schools that discriminate on the basis of race.

"Taken collectively, these and other actions threaten to close doors of opportunity only recently opened, to sow the seeds of renewed conflict and to rend the social fabric," Mr. Flemming said.

The commission's 16 members include five former Cabinet members, a former solicitor general, a former deputy attorney general, and former members of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

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