Congress Broadens Rights Law Over President's Veto
WASHINGTON--The Congress last week overrode President Reagan's veto to enact long-debated legislation nullifying the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Grove City College v. Bell.
The "Civil Rights Restoration Act,'' as the new law is known, expands the coverage of federal anti-discrimination laws to include entire educational systems, schools, and other institutions that receive federal aid.
The votes to override Mr. Reagan's action--73 to 24 in the Senate and 292 to 133 in the House--exceeded the required two-thirds majority by comfortable margins.
Opponents of the legislation had argued that it would subject churches, businesses, and social organizations to new and unjustified federal intrusion. But civil-rights lawyers said last week that schools, and especially colleges, will be more directly affected.
They agreed with a spokesman for the Education Department's office for civil rights, however, that a flood of complaints is not likely to pour in. And they expressed doubts that O.C.R. would quickly improve what they said had been a lax enforcement program.
"In a way, the battle has just begun,'' said Phyllis P. McClure, director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund's Washington office. "We have the law, and now we have to see that the executive branch enforces it.''
The O.C.R. will "promptly'' re-examine about 800 cases that were closed or narrowed after the Grove City decision, "to determine if there may be continuing actions that would now constitute violations of the civil-rights statutes enforced by the department,'' LeGree S. Daniels, assistant secretary for civil rights, said in a statement last week.
In the Grove City case, the Court held that Title IX of the 1972 Education Amendments, which prohibits sex discrimination in federally funded education programs, applied only to the specific program receiving funds and not to the entire institution. The principle also extended to laws banning discrimination on the basis of race, age, and disability.
Because the new law is not retroactive, the O.C.R. statement said, "discrimination alleged to have occurred before March 22, 1988, is not affected.''
But Mark Hingston, a legal adviser to Ms. Daniels, said OCR would investigate cases where allegedly discriminatory policies are still in effect, even if the individual who filed the original complaint were no longer a student in the affected school district or college.
He said that the agency would not initially increase the number of its "compliance reviews'' at schools and colleges, but that the reviews would be wider in scope.
Virginia Case Said Affected
Edwin W. Davis, chairman of the Mecklenburg County, Va., chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said last week that he hoped the new law would result in abolition of a tracking system in the county's schools. The civil-rights group alleges that the practice discriminates against black students by denying them entrance to college-preparatory programs.
"I think the law is going to take care of the case,'' he said, adding that the Grove City ruling "was the only thing they had to stand behind.''
The Education Department's civil-rights office found the county in violation of rights law and began proceedings in 1984 to cut off its federal funding. An administrative law judge dismissed the case because the agency had not proven that the tracking was part of a federally funded program.
The case was never officially closed, and OCR filed a request this month for another hearing, at which officials said they hoped to establish a link between the tracking system and federal funds, according to Paul Wood, an OCR spokesman. He said the effect of the new law on the case "hasn't been determined.''
But Mr. Davis said he was sure O.C.R.'s action was spurred by passage of the bill.
"I had an idea that the O.C.R. was dragging its feet and not putting any steam into the rehearing, but I got word last week that they did contact the school board right after the Congress had passed the bill and asked them what their intentions were,'' he said.
Jerry Austin, superintendent of the Mecklenburg County schools, said he also thinks "there may have been more than coincidence on the timing of this.''
Mr. Austin reiterated the district's contention that the tracking system is not discriminatory and said there are no plans to reconsider the policy.
"We have no problems whatsoever defending this case on the merits,'' he said.
The case is based on eight-year-old data, according to the superintendent, and the district is working to determine if "the number of classes that could be racially identifiable may have changed.''
Few Policy Changes Seen
Several civil-rights lawyers predicted that very few school districts would consider changing their policies because of the new law.
"It depends on how vigorously and knowledgeably recipients [of federal aid] have been refusing to correct problems because they knew OCR couldn't get at them,'' Ms. McClure said.
Districts that had knowingly perpetuated violations, counting on the Grove City decision to shield them, might reconsider, she said, citing, for example, districts that had reinstated sex-segregated physical-education classes.
"There is good evidence that these people knew the law very well and were taking advantage of OCR's inability to do anything about it,'' Ms. McClure said.
But Curtis Sidden, superintendent of the Pickens County, S.C., schools, said his district had no plans either to discontinue single-sex gym classes or stop accepting federal funds.
The civil-rights office had found the district in violation of Title IX, but the department's civil-rights reviewing authority dismissed the case in light of Grove City. That 1984 decision broke new ground, establishing that receipt of Chapter 2 block-grant funds did not subject a school to building-wide civil-rights coverage.
"The persons who made the complaint are not in the area anymore, and I have no indications from anyone that the case will be reopened,'' Mr. Sidden said. "If it is reopened, we will just have to deal with it then.''
William Bentley Ball, a lawyer who testified in opposition to the Grove City bill for the Association of Christian Schools International, said he did not think Christian schools that now accept federal funds would discontinue the policy.
"Many such schools will simply await events'' and "hope they will not be considered guilty of any form of discrimination,'' he said.
But the organization of fundamentalist Christian schools fears that members could find their dress codes, counseling practices, or sex-segregated housing policies challenged, he said.
"We are, of course, apprehensive about the implications of the bill,'' he explained. "It may become a blank check for administrative action that is essentially unwarranted.''
"There will be a renewed interest in looking at what's happening in the schools to see if the hundreds of violations where complaints have been dropped are continuing,'' said Marcia D. Greenberger, managing attorney for the National Women's Law Center.
"I think schools can be expected to be asked to change their practices, but I hope the impetus will come from themselves,'' she said. "I would hope that entities that are now covered in their entirety under this legislation will realize they now have civil-rights obligations they didn't have during the last four years.''
Ms. Greenberger and several other lawyers said the law would have a greater immediate effect at the collegiate level, where many institutions will be forced to provide more equitable athletic opportunities for female students.
She said, however, that the National Women's Law Center would continue to pursue a case against Temple University in Philadelphia. In that suit, the organization is attempting to establish that unequal treatment in athletics violates the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and the Pennsylvania Equal Rights Amendment. It is the first attempt to litigate such claims under other laws since Title IX was narrowed by Grove City.