A bipartisan group of 47 representatives and three senators yesterday filed papers with the Supreme Court contending that the Justice Department's reading of a major sex discrimination law flouts congressional intent.
Congress intended that the law "be applied comprehensively and in a mannner designed to eliminate gender discrimination from the American educational system," the group said.
The group, organized by Rep. Claudine Schneider (R-R.I.) and including Sen. Bob Packwood (R-Ore.), Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.), Sen. Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) and Rep. Paul Simon (D-Ill.), chairman of the House subcommittee on post-secondary education, submitted the unusual friend-of-the-court brief in the case involving a small Pennsylvania college that has refused to sign assurances that it does not practice sex discrimination.
Grove City College contends that the government has no authority to require such a statement because the college does not receive federal funds. Federal aid to students, as in Pell grants and student loans, it contends, do not constitute aid to the school.
Justice opposes that position, but in a brief filed Friday it argued that only the specific college office receiving federal funds is required to abide by the anti-discrimination law. In practice, that could mean that the financial aid office is subject to the law, but the academic and sports programs are not.
As attorneys were filing the congressional group's brief, Attorney General William French Smith was sending a letter to Dole expressing "disappointment" that during the weekend Dole had said Justice's brief ignores congressional intent.
"Your comments," Smith wrote, "should have been directed to your colleagues rather than to the Department of Justice. Congress makes the law . . . . It is not the job of the Department of Justice to argue in favor of the interpretation which we like as a matter of policy or which reflects that latest Gallup poll. Our decision must be--and was--determined by what we believe Congress' policy decision to have been."
In a statement, Schneider yesterday said, "I believe this . . . makes it clear that Congress intended Title IX the prohibition on sex discrimination contained in the 1972 Education Act amendments to apply to all programs within an institution receiving any type of federal aid. The Justice Department's brief rightfully prohibits sexual discrimination in financial aid programs, but turns a blind eye to any discrimination occurring in admission programs, the classrooms or on the athletic field."
Title IX, which is modeled on prohibitions against racial discrimination contained in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, is widely considered a hallmark piece of women's rights legislation.
The Justice position, which limits the circumstances under which a school could be penalized by a federal fund cutoff, is being taken at the same time the administration has been trying to improve its image with women's groups.
According to the congressional brief, it was "the intent of Congress that all aspects of an integrated institution are within the coverage of Title IX . . . . We strongly urge this court to reject the effort to limit the protections afforded by Title IX . . . only a broad and comprehensive application of Title IX comports with the intention of Congress."
However, in his letter to Dole, Smith said that "ours is not a 'legalistic, technical interpretation' as you say in your statement but rather the most reasonable reading of the statute and its history. I am disappointed and sorry you find this so 'difficult to understand.' "