With or without ERA

American opinion was divided on last week's judicial setback to the equal rights amendment. But all should welcome swift Supreme Court clarification of the lower federal court's rulings: against Congress's extension of the ERA ratification deadline; in favor of states' authority to rescind ratification.

Meanwhile, whether or not ERA survives, the nation's struggle against the blot of sex discrimination must move forward.

President Reagan is called upon to follow through on his promises to fight for equal rights by means other than ERA. So far his administration appears to be trying to ease federal regulations against sex discrimination rather than to toughen them. But the President himself has rightly urged that every discriminatory federal and state law be repealed. And he has a prime opportunity to exercise leadership toward more far-reaching reform.

One way is to support a federal commitment against sex discrimination beyond the piecemeal legislative and regulatory approach that led to the call for a constitutional amendment. For instance, both Congress and the President ought to push for correction of a conspicuous omission in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VI of the act prohibits discrimination in federally assisted programs on account of race, color, or national origin - but not on account of gender. This omission has led to confusion and inefficiency in antidiscrimination enforcement efforts.

Without minimizing the continuing battle against racial discrimination, for example, the government could raise sex discrimination from its second-class status among enforcement priorities. Certainly the civil rights law should be changed or other legislation enacted to cover fully the form of discrimination affecting more people than any other.

The countdown on ERA must not defer the antidiscrimination efforts that are needed with or without an equal rights amendment.

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