Senate Amends, Passes Rights Bill
Washington--The Senate late last week overwhelmingly approved a bill to broaden the reach of civil-rights laws narrowed by a controversial 1984 U.S. Supreme Court decision.
But the measure's chances for final approval in the House were clouded by an amendment that would permit universities and hospitals that receive federal funds to refuse to pay for or perform abortions.
In addition, President Reagan has signaled that he will veto the proposed "civil rights restoration act," S 557, saying it would force a "sweeping" expansion of federal authority over the operations of private businesses and organizations.
Congressional supporters of the measure, however, predicted that they could marshal a sufficient number of votes to override a Presidential veto.
The Senate's 75-to-14 vote to approve the bill marked the latest step in a string of developments that began four years ago when the Supreme Court, in Grove City College v. Bell, ruled that the federal law barring sex discrimination in education applied only to "programs and activities" receiving federal aid, and not to entire schools and colleges as the law had been previously interpreted.
Although the Grove City decision applied only to the sex-discrimination law, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, it cast doubt on the scope of similarly worded civil-rights laws barring discrimination on the basis of race, age, and handicap.
Civil-rights advocates have harshly criticized the Court's ruling in the case, alleging that it gutted the anti-bias laws. Within weeks of the ruling, legislation was introduced to nullify the effect of the decision. But until last week it had remained enmeshed in a Congressional debate over whether it would force medical institutions opposed to abortion to provide such services for women.
During deliberations on the measure early last week, Senator John C. Danforth, a Missouri Republican, introduced an amendment to clarify that the bill would not require such institutions to perform abortions. The rider was approved by a vote of 56 to 39.
Senator Danforth argued that it would be "an absolute outrage" for the Congress to force on Roman Catholic institutions like Georgetown and Notre Dame universities "a policy that under the Hyde Amendment we don't support ourselves." The Hyde measure restricts federal funding for abortions.
Opponents of the Danforth amendment countered that religious institutions opposed to abortion could obtain exemptions under existing laws. They also contended that the amendment could permit such institutions to discriminate against women who had had abortions.
Senator Edward M. Kennedy, the rights bill's chief sponsor, said the amendment "constitutes a disturbing dilution of the protections which women currently enjoy."
But he also praised the bill overall, calling it "one of the most important civil-rights measures in recent years."
The Reagan Administration and other opponents of the bill, however, argue that while they support the legislation's stated purpose, in its current form it would infringe on religious liberty and open a wide range of private organizations, institutions, and corpora8tions to government intrusion.
In a statement issued on the first day of the Senate debate, the Justice Department denounced the proposal, calling it "one of the greatest expansions of federal power in the post-World War II era."
Such "sweeping expansion of federal authority is utterly unjustified and is contrary to the principles that underlie the Constitution," the department said.
Senators rejected an amendment offered by Senator Orrin G. Hatch, Republican of Utah, and supported by the Administration that would have expanded the number of schools that could receive exemptions from compliance with Title IX's anti-sex-bias provisions.
The current exemption covers only religiously "controlled" institutions; the amendment, which was backed by religious schools and colleges, would have covered all religiously "affiliated" institutions.
A number of other Administration-backed amendments designed to narrow the reach of the legislation also failed to gain approval.
In a last-minute effort to thwart passage of the bill, President Reagan sent a letter to Senator Hatch, the chief Senate opponent of the legislation, calling the measure "unacceptable to me."
After the bill's passage Thursday night, a White House spokesman said, "We oppose the bill in its current form. There's a veto signal out there."
In response, Senator Kennedy predicted that the Congress could override a veto. He also noted that the President had often threatened vetoes but finally signed bills.
The measure now goes to the House, where it has been jointly referred to the Education and Labor and Judiciary committees.