Court Fostering Bias, Report Finds : Rights Groups Say 1984 Ruling Creates 'Giant Loophole'

Times Staff Writer

A 1984 Supreme Court decision in a sex-discrimination case involving a small Pennsylvania college has created a "giant loophole" that allows a wide range of institutions to discriminate against minorities, women, the elderly and handicapped, two civil rights groups charged in a report released Sunday.

"Americans can no longer feel assured that the schools, hospitals, airports, correction facilities and other institutions which they support through their federal taxes are required to treat them fairly," said the report compiled by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the American Civil Liberties Union.

Warned of Chaos

The report, which the Reagan Administration disputed, included material obtained from court records and federal agencies through the Freedom of Information Act and was compiled over a two-year period. It is the most comprehensive effort so far to document the effects of the high court decision--a decision that civil rights advocates have said would bring chaos to rights enforcement throughout society.

The court ruled that at Grove City College, a private institution in western Pennsylvania, only the financial aid office was subject to federal laws protecting females against discrimination because that office was the only part of the school receiving federal funds.

Following that decision, the Justice Department announced it would broaden its interpretation to cover not only laws involving sex discrimination but those governing discrimination on the basis of race, handicap and age as well.

The action caused a furor in the civil rights community and on Capitol Hill, where legislation to restore the traditional interpretation of the laws is pending.

Described as 'Nightmarish'

Meanwhile, however, the situation "can best be described in one word: nightmarish," Antonio Califa, legislative counsel for the ACLU, said at a news conference.

Since the ruling, federal agencies have dismissed "thousands of complaints" for lack of jurisdiction, the report states, asserting that enforcement of civil rights laws has become "arbitrary and piecemeal" and that the laws themselves have been "hamstrung."

The report, which is being sent to all members of Congress, contains details on several cases that the civil rights officials call examples of a severe national problem.

Among the cases:

--A victim of cerebral palsy unsuccessfully sued Delta Air Lines because it wanted him to sign a form allowing the airline to refuse him service in case the service made other passengers uncomfortable or unsafe. The man lost his case because the airline's federal subsidies only applied to flights between small cities. He was flying between Birmingham and Los Angeles.

--A woman was dismissed from a master's degree program at the University of Vermont because a professor said she was "too old" to get a degree. The Education Department refused to investigate because the program itself did not receive federal funds, although the university did receive financial aid money.

--A professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York filed suit charging she was unfairly denied seniority rights while on maternity leave. But the suit was dismissed because the institute's federal funds could not be tied directly to the professor's curriculum area.

Interpretation Challenged

Phyllis McClure, director of the Washington office of the legal defense fund, said such cases show that the Administration's interpretation of the Supreme Court decision has "stripped the (lower) courts of their ability" to enforce civil rights laws, even as numerous institutions continue to benefit from millions of dollars in federal aid.

The situation is "pretty damned serious," Rep. Don Edwards (D-San Jose) said in an interview. He said a variety of institutions "are finding out they can discriminate as long as a particular department doesn't get federal funds."

Edwards, who authored legislation specifying that if a single program receives federal aid, then the entire institution falls under the anti-discrimination laws, acknowledged that his bill, the Civil Rights Restoration Act, has a long hill to climb to passage.

The problem centers on a barrage of anti-abortion amendments that conservative congressmen have threatened to attach to the bill. Some of the amendments address a fear of the influential U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops, which worries that the restoration act would force Catholic hospitals to perform abortions if they were affiliated with colleges receiving federal money. Rights activists Point out that schools can easily obtain religious exemptions.

At the news conference, officials said the Education Department was the government's principal offender when it comes to turning away discrimination cases because of a narrow interpretation of the Grove City decision.

Information Disputed

However, Alicia Coro, the Education Department's deputy assistant secretary for civil rights, said: "That information is incorrect. There are many reasons why cases are turned away. I don't think I should go into all sorts of details as to why cases are closed."

She and other Administration officials said the government is simply obeying the Supreme Court decision.

"We're doing what we're supposed to do, which is enforce the decision of the Supreme Court. The action is in Congress," Coro said.

At the Justice Department, Terry Eastland, director of public affairs, said the Administration "has been following what the court has said. Surely, no one would want the Administration not to follow what the court has held."

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