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From Eloquence to Action : Bush Should Sign Civil Rights Act of 1990 to Reaffirm Commitment to Fairness

President Bush has spoken eloquently and compassionately about civil rights, fairness and equal opportunity. He can make good on his fine words by signing the Civil Rights Act of 1990 to restore protections against employment discrimination on the basis of race or gender.

This important civil-rights legislation would reverse the damage done last year by the Supreme Court in several controversial decisions that make it much harder for workers to prove job discrimination. The bill enjoys strong bipartisan support. Unfortunately, that support does not extend fully to the White House.

At the heart of the President’s reluctance is the specter of quotas. The Justice Department has advised Bush that a controversial section of the bill could result in quotas, and recommended a veto. To Bush’s credit, he met last week with civil-rights leaders and encouraged a compromise--and he got what he wanted.

A provision of the bill corrects a Supreme Court decision that unfairly shifts the burden of proof from employers to the alleged victims of job discrimination.

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In a compromise worked out by Sens. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and John C. Danforth (R-Mo.), employers could meet that burden of proof by demonstrating that employee qualifications “bear a substantial and demonstrable relationship” to effective job performance. In other words, if great physical strength is required to do a particular job, some women--and men--could be legally excluded.

The modification replaces a tougher standard that required employers to meet the burden of proof by justifying a challenged practice on the basis of “business necessity.” The new language is a compromise does not change the intent of the legislation. Congress should hang tough on that point and compromise no further, because the altered language ought to satisfy the White House.

If Bush has any lingering concerns, he should accept the wise counsel of his friend, supporter and appointee--Arthur Fletcher, the new chairman of the reconstituted U.S. Civil Rights Commission. Fletcher correctly insists that the bill does not mandate hiring quotas; it merely sets goals.

The goal of this nation is a color-blind society where decisions to hire, fire and promote are based on qualifications and performance without regard to race or gender. President Bush says he is committed to that goal. By signing the Civil Rights Act of 1990, the President can restore safeguards against racial and gender bias in the workplace.

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