Civil rights debate on Hill raises issue of religious freedom. Some church leaders are concerned that proposed legislation to clarify antidiscrimination laws could result in government intrusion upon their beliefs
Washington — The Senate debate over a controversial civil rights bill has moved into the emotion-charged realm of religious liberty. The latest concerns about the Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1985 include that it might be used to force clinics at Roman Catholic colleges to perform abortions, or to require certain religious-related organizations to hire homosexuals.
Opponents of the measure warn that the act as currently drafted will extend the long arm of the federal government, authorizing federal bureaucrats to intrude into the day-to-day workings of religious schools and institutions, even if those organizations are not direct recipients of federal funding.
Supporters of the bill insist that it is aimed only at clarifying the intent of the nation's four main civil rights statutes. They say the bill will not broaden the powers of the federal government, and will not subject religious institutions to expanded scrutiny from Washington.
``I think we can go back to having strong civil rights and still not be a threat to religious institutions,'' says Sen. Paul Simon (D) of Illinois.
The Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1985 is designed primarily to undermine a 1984 Supreme Court decision that narrowed the scope of federal authority to enforce civil rights laws among institutions receiving federal funds. In the so-called Grove City (Pa.) case, the Supreme Court ruled that federal antidiscrimination laws apply only to the particular program or activity receiving federal financial assistance. (Prior to the decision, it was widely understood that such laws applied to an entire institution even if only part of the institution received federal aid.)
The decision has been condemned by civil rights leaders as opening the door to unequal enforcement of federal civil rights statutes and to widespread discrimination in federally funded private schools and other institutions across the country.
The new bill reaffirms the goal of previous civil rights legislation -- that recipients of federal funding must comply with federal discrimination laws. These laws forbid discrimination for reasons of race, sex, age, or disability.
But while there is virtual unanimity in Congress that recipients of federal funds should comply with antidis-crimination laws, there is anything but agreement on the question of who constitutes a recipient of government funds.
The Supreme Court decided last year that Grove City College, a small liberal arts school in Pennsylvania, was, in fact, a recipient of federal assistance. Although Grove City administrators maintained a strict policy of not accepting federal funds for the school, the court reasoned that because some of the students at Grove City received federal education grants to help pay tuition costs, the school itself qualified as a recipient of federal funding.
Grove City officials said they had intentionally refused other types of federal funding, not out of a desire to flout federal discrimination laws, but in an effort to fend off what it saw as an encroachment of federal authority into its affairs.
The school wanted to maintain its complete autonomy from federal intrusion, in part so that it could continue to teach religious and moral values as part of its curriculum.
``Our suspicion is that [federal officials] are really seeking to control all education in the United States,'' says John Moser, the director of admissions at Grove City College.
``Whether it is called public or private, it seems to be heading toward complete control and domination by the federal government,'' he says, ``and we hope and pray that there is still going to be such a thing as private independent education.''
Not all religious groups are opposed to the passage of the current version of the Civil Rights Restoration Act. Some 40 religious organizations have indicated their support for the bill, including the National Council of Churches (NCC) and the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.
``We feel that if a school wants to discriminate that it shouldn't accept federal funds,'' says Mary Cooper of the NCC.
Other religious groups are concerned that the definition of ``recipient'' of federal funds may be broadly interpreted to include such payments as veteran's benefits, food stamps, and school lunch programs.
On the abortion issue, the Rev. J. Bryan Hehir of the United States Catholic Conference told a Senate subcommittee Wednesday that he was concerned that the new act would extend coverage of federal abortion regulations. He noted that the regulations require that abortion ``be treated the same as other disabilities in student and employee health and benefit programs.''
Compliance with such a regulation would pose a considerable dilemma for some religious-related schools and other institutions whose religions oppose abortion on moral grounds. Likewise, antidiscrimination laws pose a similar dilemma for church-related groups who view homosexuality as a moral issue.
In the past, the clash between the desire for nationwide enforcement of civil rights laws and America's constitutional guarantee of religious liberty has been resolved by granting religious groups an exemption from complying with laws that would conflict with their religious beliefs.
Some religious groups are asking that the exemption be broadened as part of the new law.