Though school desegregation suits have dominated civil-rights cases in the past, equal spending for municipal services may well dominate them in the future.
''They're time consuming and very costly,'' says Bill Robinson, executive director of the National Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. ''And the larger the city, the more difficult and cumbersome they are to prove.''
A 1974 US Supreme Court ruling, which requires proof of intentional discrimination in 14th Amendment cases, has slowed the number of cases filed for a period of several years.
Still the committee has filed about 30 equal services cases over the last decade or so, particularly in the rural South. And it intends to file more, Mr. Robinson says.
''They've been exceptionally successful cases - more commonly through settlement than after trial,'' he says. ''Blacks in many towns have gained substantial additional services in paved streets, sewer services, lighting, and in larger water mains for fire protection.''
Though the Justice Department discrimination suit against the Chicago Park District is the first filed under the 1974 housing act, indications are it won't be the last.
''We have several municipal service investigations under way,'' confirms Justice Department spokesman John Wilson.
Still, there are those who feel uneasy about civil-rights activism in pursuit of separate but equal treatment. They see it as a backward step. Syndicated columnist William Rasberry, for instance, argues that if an equal spending ruling were handed down in the public schools, civil-rights leaders would call it a violation of the Constitution.
But, says Sybille Fritzsche of the Chicago Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law Inc., ''In order for everyone to enjoy all the parks in Chicago, for instance, you have to bring them up to a certain standard. Many presently aren't being used and aren't safe. You have to sort of equalize things first to make the neighborhood more attractive before there's any hope of integrated housing. . . . That's the rationale.''