The Senate, in a major victory for civil rights advocates, Thursday night overwhelmingly passed a long-stalled bill to restore broad anti-discrimination protections that had been cut back four years ago by a controversial Supreme Court decision.
Before the action, the Senate added two amendments designed to quiet the opposition from abortion foes. The abortion provisions, which were strongly opposed by pro-abortion organizations, likely will be highly controversial when the bill reaches the House.
The Senate's 75-14 vote was a major defeat for the Reagan Administration. Only three days ago in the legislative statement accompanying his State of the Union speech, President Reagan had expressed strong opposition to the bill, the Civil Rights Restoration Act, saying that its "vague and sweeping language threatens to subject every facet of American life . . . to intrusive regulation by federal agencies and courts."
On Thursday afternoon, Reagan sent a letter to Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) calling the bill "unacceptable to me."
Before the Senate took final action, it rejected by a 75-19 vote an alternative proposal that the Administration had put forward.
The bill would broaden the protections offered by federal laws that bar discrimination against women, minorities, the elderly and the disabled. It would apply to all institutions that receive any form of federal financial aid.
Prospects for passage of the legislation in the House are good. Both sponsors and opponents consistently have said that Senate passage was the major obstacle for the measure and the bill has been a priority of the House Democratic leadership. The Senate's vote was substantially above the two-thirds majority required to override a veto, and a similar margin is expected in the House.
Court's 1984 Decision
Civil rights groups have lobbied for the bill ever since the high court, in a 6-3 decision in 1984, ruled in favor of Grove City College, a small Pennsylvania institution that had argued it was immune from the anti-discrimination provisions of federal law. But passage in the Senate has been blocked in previous years by determined conservative opposition.
At issue in the debate over the bill is the breadth of existing federal civil rights laws that forbid discrimination at schools, colleges, hospitals and other institutions that receive federal aid.
Four years ago, the high court ruled that the laws were intended to prevent discrimination only in the parts of the institution that directly receive aid. Any programs that do not receive aid would remain free to discriminate, the court had held.
The new bill would make anti-discrimination rules binding on all programs in federally assisted institutions. Under the new bill's provisions, for example, a university that receives federal grants, as almost all institutions of higher education do, could be sued for rights violations in any of its programs, including those that do not receive government money.
The most controversial argument over the bill has been that it would force institutions with comprehensive health plans to pay for abortions, even if the institutions are run by religious groups that condemn the practice. Refusal to perform abortions would open the institution to lawsuits by women charging sex discrimination, opponents of the bill claimed.
The amendment passed by the Senate, 56 to 39, after an emotional debate says federal anti-discrimination laws may not "be construed to require or prohibit any person, or public or private entity, to provide or pay for any benefit or service . . . related to abortion."
Abortion rights groups vowed to try to overturn the amendment when the bill reaches the House, but Msgr. Daniel F. Hoye, general secretary of the U.S. Catholic Conference, hailed the vote result, calling it "important because the amendment ensures that the beliefs of those who are opposed to abortion will be respected and their institutions will not be coerced under the guise of civil rights into paying for something which they believe to be morally wrong."