Federal News Roundup
Senate Committee Approves Bill On Prayer Meetings
The Senate Judiciary Committee has approved a bill permitting public-school students to meet for prayer or Bible study in classrooms when school is not in session.
By an 11-to-4 vote, the committee on Sept. 15 endorsed a proposal by Senator Jeremiah Denton, Republican of Alabama, that would require schools to give student religious groups the same access to schoolrooms as is afforded secular clubs and organizations. The measure, S1059, specifies that faculty members cannot take an active role in such gatherings.
Senate aides said the bill had not been scheduled for a vote by the full chamber as of late last week.
"The meetings can be Jewish, Muslim, students of any denomination," Senator Denton said. "The point is they have to be granted equal access, just like a drama club or anybody else."
Senator Joseph R. Biden, Democrat of Delaware, offered an amendment to the bill that would have limited its coverage to secondary schools, but the panel rejected his proposal by a 10-to-5 vote.
Senator Biden eventually voted in favor of the bill, but not before arguing that the Senate needs to inform "various groups groups around the country ... about what they are and are not able to do" under the proposal.
On July 14, the committee sent to the full Senate, without recommendation, two proposed constitutional amendments regarding school prayer.
One of those proposals, sponsored by Senator Orrin G. Hatch, Republican of Utah, contains language similar to that in the bill approved earlier this month.
Justice Department Appoints Task Force On Family Violence
A task force to study the problems of family violence was appointed this month by Attorney General William French Smith.
The Task Force on Family Violence will hold national hearings on topics such as child and spouse abuse and mistreatment of the el-derly. It is expected to deliver a report to the Justice Department within six months.
The nine-member panel is headed by William Hart, Detroit's chief of police, and includes: John Ashcroft, attorney general of Missouri; Ann Burgess, associate director for nursing research at Boston City Hospital; Newman Flanagan, district attorney of Suffolk County, Mass.; Ursula Meese, a delegate to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women; Catherine Milton of Palo Alto, Calif., an assistant to the president of Stanford University; Clyde Narramore, a licensed psychologist and marriage counselor in Los Angeles; Reuben Ortega, chief of police in Phoenix; Frances Seward of Jamaica, N.Y., safety director of the Jamaica Service Program for Older Adults.
Title I Audit Dispute Won by Kentucky
A federal appeals court has ruled that the U.S. Education Department improperly ordered Kentucky officials in 1982 to refund $338,000 in funds for the education of disadvantaged children that were allegedly misspent in 1974.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, hearing the case on direct appeal, said on Sept. 14 that it was "unfair" of the department to penalize the state "where there is no evidence of bad faith and the Commonwealth's program complies with a reasonable interpretation of the law."
The case stemmed from a federal auditor's determination in 1974 that the state was in violation of a provision in Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 that requires states to use federal funds to supplement, and not supplant, state and local funds to meet the needs of students from low-income families.
Senate Committee Delays Action on Civil-Rights Panel
The Senate Judiciary Committee has once again postponed action on two key measures related to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.
On Sept. 15, the committee had been scheduled to vote on President Reagan's three nominees to the bipartisan, rights-monitoring agency. Senate aides said the committee's Republican leaders cancelled the session after determining that they did not have enough votes to ensure approval of all three nominees.
The committee's leaders rescheduled the vote on the nominations for Sept. 22, only to cancel it for a second time. Committee aides said the panel has rescheduled action on the nominations for Sept. 28 and 29.
Also pending before the panel's Subcommittee on the Constitution is a measure to extend the life of the civil-rights agency. Without Congressional action, the 26-year-old commission will go out of business on Sept. 30.
The subcommittee was set to act on the bill reauthorizing the commission on Sept. 16, but that session was cancelled and has yet to be rescheduled. The Republican chairman of the full committee, Senator Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, has indicated on several occasions that he would delay action on the reauthorization measure pending action on the Presidential nominations.
A bill that would extend the life of the panel for five years and permit the removal of its members only for neglect of duty or misconduct in office has already been passed by the House. That measure is pending in the full Senate and can be called up for action at any time.
Administration Seeks Abolition of Rights Deadlines
The Reagan Administration told a federal appeals court last week that U.S. District Judge John H. Pratt's oversight of the Education and Labor Departments' civil-rights activities violates the constitutional principle of separation of powers.
The papers filed by the Administration with the court last week marked the latest step in Adams v. Bell and Women's Equity Action League v. Bell, a pair of lawsuits often described as the most important litigation pending against the government for failure to enforce civil-rights laws.
In 1977, Judge Pratt ordered the departments to determine within 90 days of receiving a complaint whether a civil-rights violation has occurred at a school or college. During the following 90 days, they must try to negotiate a settlement with officials at the institution, and if those negotiations fail, the departments have another 30 days to launch enforcement procedings.
In August 1982, the Administration filed a motion with Judge Pratt requesting that he phase out the "unworkable, inflexible, and unrealistic" time frames over a period of two years. Last March, however, he upheld his earlier order and handed down a new one demanding that the departments speed up their standing investigations of race, sex, and handicap bias in educational institutions.
"Perhaps the best evidence that the time frame orders are unworkable and not feasible is the sorry record of statistical compliance with them through 12 cabinet secretaries, 10 directors of [the Education Department's office for civil rights], and 4 directors of [the Labor Department's office of federal contract compliance programs]," the Administration told the appeals court.
"Instead of a prod to better performance, the orders have become essentially a punitive device," it continued. "In these circumstances, there is ample justification for vacating [Judge Pratt's 1977 order] and allowing the agencies to start over."
Panel Issues Study On Handicapped
Despite some improvement, particularly in the last decade, discrimination against handicapped people continues to be a serious and pervasive social problem, according to a new monograph by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.
"The source of much discrimination aganist handicapped people is a common view of handicaps as physical or mental disorders that inevitably limit abilities, performance, and success," the commission said in the 173-page document, Accommodating the Spectrum of Individual Abilities. "Our society creates handicap discrimination when it distorts the abilities of handicapped persons by drawing lines across the spectrum of physical and mental abilities and labels those on one side 'handicapped' and those on the other 'normal."'
The panel said the report provides information geared toward a general audience as well as information for regulators, judges, and lawyers.
Copies of the report can be obtained by writing the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, 1121 Vermont Ave. N.W., Washington D.C., 20425.