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Officials Cite Grove City Ruling In Their Shift on Title IX Case

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Washington--The Education Department's office for civil rights, following what was described as an "informal directive" to re-examine pending cases, has dropped a finding of sex discrimination against the University of Maryland because of a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision limiting the scope of the law requiring equal treatment of men and women in education.

The civil-rights office's March 8 decision to drop the Maryland case came nine days after the Court ruled 6 to 3 in Grove City College v. Bell that only those parts of an institution that receive federal aid must comply with Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. One women's-rights advocate called the move "an unfortunate but predictable outcome" of the decision.

Less than a week before the Grove City case was decided, the civil-rights office officially notified the university in a 30-page letter of finding that it had violated Title IX by not accommodating the "interests and abilities" of female athletes.

The office concluded that the university had failed to treat male and female athletes equally in terms of scholarships, compensation of coaches, practice time, availability of facilities, provision of trainers, recruitment, travel, and overall support services, according to an Education Department spokesman.

'Program or Activity'

At issue in the Grove City case was the meaning of a section of Title IX stating that sex bias is prohibited "in any educational program or activity receiving federal financial assistance." Identical language is found in Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits racial discrimination, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which prohibits discrimination against the handicapped, and the Age Discrimination Act of 1975.

The Court determined that only the financial-aid department at Grove City College needed to comply with Title IX's anti-discrimination provisions, because it is the only "program or activity" at the college that receives federal aid. (See Education Week, March 7, 1984.)

That interpretation of Title IX squared with the position taken by the Reagan Administration in the case. In arguing that interpretation before the Court, the Administration rejected the position it previously had taken in lower courts--and the position endorsed by three previous Administrations--that institutionwide Title IX coverage is triggered when a school or college receives any federal aid.

Ruling Under Review

Spokesmen for the Justice and Education Departments said last week that both agencies are still in the process of reviewing the Grove City decision to determine whether they will need to modify federal regulations governing the enforcement of the anti-discrimination laws that contain the contested language.

In recent interviews, Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell and William Bradford Reynolds, the assistant attorney general for civil rights, have said that such modifications are likely.

Harry M. Singleton, the Education Department's assistant secretary for civil rights, has "informally" told regional civil-rights investigators "to look carefully at their pending cases to make sure we can assert jurisdiction in light of the Court's decision," according to a spokesman for the civil-rights office.

"The regional personnel need to make sure that the programs being investigated are getting direct federal assistance," the spokesman said. "If not, they have to close the investigations."

Ronald Gilliam, assistant civil-rights director in the department's Region III office, acknowledged that the decision to drop charges against the University of Maryland's athletic department was based, in part, on Mr. Singleton's directive.

At least one other pending investigation of alleged sex discrimination in a university's athletic department could be affected by the directive, Mr. Gilliam said. He added that investigations of race, handicap, and age bias have "not yet" been affected by the Grove City ruling.

Nullification Urged

The government's swift abandonment of the Maryland charges in light of the Grove City decision "strengthens the case" for passage of a broad statute stating that educational institutions cannot discriminate against women, minorities, the handicapped, and the aged if they receive any amount and any type of federal assistance, said Leslie Wolfe, director of the National Organization for Women's Project on Equal Education Rights.

peer and other civil-rights organizations scheduled a press conference for this week to announce the introduction of such legislation in the House and the Senate.

Following the Grove City decision, officials in the Education and Justice Departments "were quick to say that it wouldn't cause any problems, that its impact would be minimal," Ms. Wolfe said. "But their decision to drop this case as soon as possible shows their real intent.''

If the Congress fails to act quickly and favorably on the proposed legislation, "anti-discrimination cases of all types will start dropping like flies," she predicted.

Legislation has already been introduced in both the House and Senate to nullify the Court's interpretation in the Grove City case.

A spokesman for Representative Claudine Schneider, Republican of Rhode Island and chief sponsor of the House version of the Title IX measure, said last week that after conferring with representatives from civil-rights organizations, she has agreed to withdraw her proposal and to introduce another that also covers Title VI, Section 504, and the Age Discrimination Act.

"The lawyers that we consulted convinced us that we would sink the other three statutes if we agreed to modify only Title IX," said an aide to Representative Schneider.

He explained that in future legal challenges, proponents of a limited reading of the race-, handicap-, and age-bias laws could argue before the courts that the Congress, by passing up the opportunity to revise those laws, tacitly accepted the Court's restrictive reading of the ''program or activity" phrase regarding them.

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