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Civil-Rights Laws 'Gutted,' Senators Told

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WASHINGTON--Witnesses testifying last week at a Senate hearing on the proposed "civil-rights restoration act'' presented new evidence that the U.S. Supreme Court decision the act is meant to nullify has "gutted'' civil-rights enforcement.

The National Women's Law Center, in a report released at the hearing, documented numerous instances in which complaints of discrimination on the basis of age, race, sex, or handicap had been dismissed as a result of the High Court's 1984 ruling in Grove City College v. Bell.

In that case, the Court narrowed the scope of federal civil-rights statutes when it held that Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 applies only to "programs or activities'' that receive federal funds directly, and not to entire educational institutions.

The women's advocacy group documented two lawsuits and 13 administrative-law proceedings in which charges of discrimination in school districts were dismissed because federal funds could not be traced to the specific programs in which the discrimination was alleged to have taken place.

Most of the cases cited in the report involved complaints of discrimination in the operation of athletic programs, which rarely receive direct federal funding.

For example, a federal district judge in 1986 in Michigan dismissed a case, Keenan v. Traverse City Area Public Schools, despite his conclusion in an oral opinion that a boy was being discriminated against by being prohibited from playing on his school's only volleyball team, which was for girls.

Other than the presentation of new evidence gathered in the past year, the hearing by the Labor and Human Resources Committee was virtually a repeat of those held previously on similar legislation, which has been introduced in each session of the Congress since the Grove City decision was handed down.

Despite optimism expressed by civil-rights activists over prospects for the bill's passage in the Democratic-controlled Congress, observers said there appeared to be no easy solution to the problems that have prevented the bill's passage in past sessions.

Controversies Persist

Conservative members of the Congress, such as Senator Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, the ranking Republican on the committee, have indicated that they will continue their attempts to amend the bill's language to clarify what they say are ambiguities concerning the scope of enforcement efforts.

Senator Gordon J. Humphrey, Republican of New Hampshire, dubbed the bill a "federal regulatory expansion act'' that will intrude into "every corner of society and the economy.''

But many observers say that, despite such opposition, the bill would be assured of easy passage if civil-rights groups could present a unified front in its support.

Religious groups, particularly the United States Catholic Conference, have split from their traditional civil-rights allies by insisting that the bill be amended to exempt abortion services from civil-rights coverage. (See Education Week, March 12, 1986.)

Catholic Group Criticized

Catholics for a Free Choice, an advocacy group that disagrees with the church's stands on reproductive rights, fired a new salvo in the dispute last week by charging that the U.S.C.C. is deliberately trying to block passage of the bill to protect the interests of Roman Catholic institutions as employers.

In a report released before the hearing last week, the "pro-choice'' group cites an 1985 internal document from the U.S.C.C. in which Wilfred Carron, who was its general counsel at the time, said that the unamended bill would not "create any new abortion rights.''

"The abortion issue as it relates to the civil-rights restoration act is a smoke screen designed to hide from public view the systemic discrimination against women employed in and attending Catholic schools,'' argued Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice.

"That just isn't the conference's position,'' responded Carl Eifert, a spokesman for the U.S.C.C. "Our policy is to get an amendment that makes [the act] abortion-neutral.''

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