Equal rights: testing the Reagan approach

President Reagan has combined his opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment with a stated intent to combat sex discrimination through the statutory process. Now this intent is being tested, at least symbolically, by his own secretary of education. The response of the administration will be an encouraging or discouraging signal to supporters of equal rights.

Secretary Bell wants regulatory changes that appear to go in the direction of weakening employment rights under Title IX of the Educational Amendments of 1972 . As recently as last fall the Justice Department argued before the Supreme Court that the legislative history of the Title IX supported the usual governmental interpretation of it: that it clearly forbids sex discrimination against employees in schools and colleges receiving federal support. Now the Education Department would eliminate rules to implement this interpretation; it would limit the amendment's protection to studens and leaves employees to seek protection under other laws, such as the Civil Rights Act provision on employment in general.

Whatever the legal boundary of Title IX coverage -- and lower courts have disagreed on it -- Mr. Reagan would send a dubious signal by backing a revocation of longstanding rules against jobs discrimination in federally funded educational institutions.

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Under these rules compliance has been encouraged through the enforcement provision for withholding federal funding if necessary. Without them there would be one less barrier to bias.

Last year the Supreme Court agreed to consider whether the government should be denied the authority to withhold funds in employment discrimination cases under Title IX. It would seem reasonable to wait at least until the court reaches a decision before changing the government interpretation of Title IX.

The proposed rules changes come under presidential authority. Mr. Reagan has the opportunity to confirm that his reliance on the statutory process for protecting equal rights does not mean reducing protection through this very process.

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