Enforcement of civil rights laws called `piecemeal'. But administration refutes charges of haphazard investigations

Thousands of discrimination complaints have gone uninvestigated as a result of a controversial two-year-old Supreme Court ruling, according to two civil rights groups. The American Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund released on Sunday the first comprehensive survey of the impact of the Supreme Court's Feb. 1984 decision in Grove City College v. Bell. The decision restricted federal jurisdiction in civil rights matters. The report charges that the ruling has mandated ``piecemeal and arbitrary'' enforcement of laws that forbid discrimination against women, minorities, disabled persons, and the elderly at organizations that receive federal aid.

``Grove City has become a procedural wrench that can just be thrown into the process,'' says Phyllis McClure, a co-author of the study. It concludes, ``Federal enforcement of civil rights laws has been hamstrung.''

However, an administration official asserts the report's findings are ``grossly exaggerated.''

``In my opinion, [the report's sponsors] are just trying to get publicity and stir up controversy,'' says Alicia Coro, acting deputy assistant secretary of the Education Department's Office for Civil Rights. She adds, ``We treat [discrimination] complaints exactly the same way we have always treated complaints.''

The civil rights groups' report is aimed at breaking a deadlock in Congress over special legislation that would effectively overturn the Grove City ruling.

In the Grove City case, the Supreme Court significantly narrowed the scope of federal jurisdiction in civil rights matters when it ruled that federal antidiscrimination laws apply only to the particular ``program or activity'' receiving direct federal funding.

Prior to the ruling, it was accepted that if a portion of an organization received government funding the entire business, university, or group must comply with federal antidiscrimination laws.

The proposed legislation, the Civil Rights Restoration Act, has been stalled for months in two House subcommittees in part because of concerns that the act would expand federal jurisdiction beyond its previous levels. Among the principal opponents of the proposed law is the US Catholic Conference of Bishops, which is concerned that it might empower the federal government to require hospitals associated with federally-funded Catholic universities to perform abortions.

While some view the Grove City issue as a civil rights battle, others see it as a question of encroachment by an ever-growing federal bureaucracy into religious and other freedoms.

According to Grove City College officials, the small liberal arts college in Pennsylvania did not wage its legal battle against the federal government to protect the right to discriminate against minorities or women. (Neither at the time of the case nor since the Supreme Court decision has it been alleged that the college actually discriminated against any persons.) Rather, the officials said, they sought to preserve the institution's autonomy and academic independence. They are opposed in principle, they insisted, to having to answer to what they saw as a burgeoning ``central educational authority'' in Washington.

Despite the favorable court ruling, the college has since adopted a policy of accepting no federal assistance -- including tuition aid -- in order to maintain the college's freedom to teach courses that include religious and moral values.

Because of such conflicts, Congress has exempted religious groups and schools from compliance with certain civil rights laws that might conflict with their religious beliefs. But some organizations such as Grove City College -- which is church-related but not church-owned -- complain they are not presently covered by the religious exemption.

Meanwhile, civil rights groups argue that the Grove City decision has made it much more difficult for women, minorities, the disabled, and the elderly to fight discrimination in federal court.

The ACLU and NAACP report says that the decision has created a ``giant loophole through which institutions can now discriminate.''

Rather than focusing on the alleged discrimination, the report states, federal authorities are concentrating on whether the victim of the discrimination worked for an office directly receiving federal funds. If not, the report claims, the case is dropped with no further investigation.

Ms. McClure says her estimate that ``thousands'' of cases have been affected is based on a review of complaints filed both in federal courts and within federal administrative agencies. ``There are cases being closed every day,'' she says.

The Education Department's Coro disputes this. She says that many cases dropped at the department may have simply been referred to another agency for investigation or may have been dropped by the complainant.

``There are many reasons for closing a case,'' she says, stressing that not all are related to the Grove City decision.

McClure says that state civil rights laws may cover some areas once covered by federal jurisdiction. But she adds that most state civil rights enforcement efforts have been in the areas of employment and housing discrimination. ``Very few have enforcement authority in the area of education,'' McClure says.

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