THE PRESIDENT took a swipe at a major civil rights bill Monday night, not in the State of the Union address, but in his accompanying message. The proposal, he said, "is a bill whose vague and sweeping language threatens to subject nearly every facet of American life -- from the corner grocery to the local church or synagogue to local and State government -- to intrusive regulation by Federal agencies and courts." He was talking about legislation to overturn the Grove City decision, and his objections -- familiar since 1984 -- are not only dated, they are flat wrong.

Four years ago the Supreme Court, in a case involving Grove City College, severely limited the reach of the civil rights laws by ruling that antidiscrimination provisions did not apply to an entire institution receiving federal aid, only to the specific program getting the money. As a result of this decision the executive branch has been severely hampered in moving against discrimination on the basis of race, religion, sex, handicap and age in a variety of situations. The Department of Education has reported that a total of 834 cases have been affected at the administrative enforcement level. Lower courts have been dismissing important cases -- a recent one involved the entire public higher education system of the state of Alabama -- because the government did not provide detailed accounts of where every dollar of federal funding was spent.

Congress has been trying to overturn this decision since 1984. Opponents first claimed that the proposed legislation would go beyond restoring the original regulations on institution-wide discrimination and put new and onerous burdens on small businessmen, Social Security recipients, farmers and the like. That's the argument the president is still using. But the original bill was amended years ago, specifically to carve out exemptions for those individuals and institutions who were never covered by the civil rights laws and who were never intended to be covered by new legislation. Now the bill's passage is threatened by three extraneous amendments relating to abortion services, expanded exemptions for church-related schools and discrimination against persons with contagious diseases. Not one of these belongs on the civil rights bill, and any one could sink it.

For four years, efforts to fight discrimination in federally aided programs have been operating at half speed. It's time to restore those laws to their original full strength and get on with the job.