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U.S. Backs Limit On Enforcement Of Sex-Bias Law

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Washington--The Reagan Administration decided last week not to appeal a federal district judge's ruling, handed down last July, that placed strict limitations on the authority of the Education Department (ed) to enforce federal laws barring sex discrimination in education.

The decision marks a significant, if not unexpected, turning away from policies pursued under several previous Administrations. It also appears to signal a victory for conservatives within ed who have advocated limiting the circumstances under which Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 applies to schools and colleges and their component programs.

Justice Department officials had argued in the past against ed moves to impose such limitations, but their deadline for filing an appeal in the lawsuit, University of Richmond v. Bell, passed without federal John V. Wilson, a spokesman for the Justice Department, said that the decision not to appeal the ruling was made following consultations between ed officials and William Bradford Reynolds, the assistant attorney general for civil rights. It was also widely rumored last week that White House officials were involved in those discussions.

The Administration's decision not to initiate an appeal of the ruling leaves temporarily unresolved the conflicting interpretations of three separate courts in cases involving Title IX. Attorneys representing the plaintiffs in one of those lawsuits, Grove City College v. Bell, said last week that they are in the process of preparing an appeal of their case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In the Richmond case, U.S. District Judge D. Dortch Warriner of the Eastern District of Virginia held that the federal government could not require educational institutions' component programs, such as athletic departments, to comply with Title IX unless those programs were the direct recipients of federal financial assistance. (See Education Week, Sept. 1, 1982.)

Judge Warriner also barred ed from investigating schools or colleges within his jurisdiction for Title IX compliance "absent a showing that such program or activity is the recipient of direct federal financial assistance."

Title IX states, in part, that no person "shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subject-ed to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance."

During the Nixon, Ford, and Carter Administrations federal education officials applied an "institutional" approach in interpreting and enforcing Title IX.

Under that policy, schools and colleges receiving any federal aid whatsoever, either directly or indirectly, were required to abide by Title IX's provisions in all their programs.

Locked in Debate

For the past several months, Education and Justice Department officials have been locked in debate over proposals to abandon that stance. The officials have been pressured by conservatives both inside and outside the federal government who argue against the blanket application of Title IX to institutions that receive no direct federal aid but benefit from indirect aid such as federal grants and loans to college students.

Moreover, when a school or college does receive direct aid, the opponents of current Title IX policy contend, only those parts of the institution that receive it must comply with Title IX.

That viewpoint received some support earlier this year when the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its opinion in North Haven Board of Education v. Bell.

In that case, which dealt with the applicability of Title IX to school employees, the Court held that ed's authority to enforce Title IX was limited by the the statute's "program-specific" nature. The Court, however, declined to define precisely what a "program" is with respect to Title IX enforcement.

But in August the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled in Grove City College v. Bell that "where the federal government furnishes indirect or non-earmarked aid to an institution ... the institution itself must be the program" with respect to Title IX.

Margaret A. Kohn, an attorney for the National Women's Law Center, said that the decision not to appeal the Richmond ruling "demonstrates that the Administration is not committed to the enforcement of Title IX with all of its resources."

"Their decision not to appeal is shocking," Ms. Kohn said. "There are so many aspects of the decision that could have been appealed that I cannot understand how they can possibly defend this position."

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