FEDERAL anti-discrimination laws should have broad sweep. They address some of society's most ingrained, insidious barriers to individual freedom and progress. Congress was right, in its recently passed civil rights legislation, to reaffirm that breadth of application. By large margins in both House and Senate, lawmakers clarified their intent that statutes banning discrimination based on race, sex, and national origin should cover all activities of institutions that receive federal funding.
That intent had been narrowed by the Supreme Court in its 1984 Grove City College ruling. The court held that federal law applied only to programs directly receiving federal money, in this case college admissions. The thrust of the ruling was that other programs on a campus, athletics for instance, could then be free to discriminate so long as they didn't get specific federal funding.
Critics of that ruling quickly got to work on a bill to restore a broader interpretation to federal anti-discrimination measures. A broad interpretation, in fact, had guided enforcement in the years before 1984. After numerous compromises to soothe the concerns of opponents - making clear, for example, that church-related hospitals would not be required to offer abortions - a finished piece of legislation emerged.
Some, including President Reagan, argue that giving civil rights law widened scope is tantamount to a loss of personal freedom. They see the fingers of the federal government reaching into private areas of life and work, constricting individual liberty. This is an understandable concern, and the law includes a number of exemptions and limitations that recognize it.
Others see it as a matter of basic justice, putting the weight of the government where it belongs: squarely behind the proposition that discrimination based on factors over which a person has no control undermines a society committed to fairness and equal opportunity.
This broad view deserves to prevail, and chances are it will, despite President Reagan's threatened veto.