The Grove City case, which surfaced as a piece of vexation for those committed to federal enforcement of civil rights, has now been transformed into a piece of cake for anybody who isn't a confirmed, card-carrying bigot.
Grove City College is the small western Pennsylvania school that dislikes federal regulation to the point it decided, some years ago, to forgo federal money in order to maintain its independence. It even refused to participate in the program that funnels federal money through the colleges for the benefit of students selected by the colleges.
But it did accept students who received grants directly from the government, and that, the Carter administration argued, was enough to bring Grove City under the requirement that it sign an agreement to comply with Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 prohibiting sex discrimination.
Grove City, which denies ever discriminating against women and which in fact has never been accused of sex discrimination, refused to sign the agreement. Even committed civil rights supporters had misgivings about tackling Grove City for its principled objection to federal intrusion, but they also feared that to acquiesce would embolden bigoted institutions -- the so-called "seg academies," for instance -- to use the Grove City approach to avail themselves of federal dollars without the necessity of renouncing their bigotry.
That was the confused situation when the Reagan administration, siding with Grove City, urged the Supreme Court to rule that the Carter officials had been too zealous in their interpretation of what Title IX required.
The Supreme Court, in its ruling of a year ago, handed the Reagan administration a partial victory that had the effect of resolving the civil rights dilemma. The acceptance of students with direct government loans does bring the college under the Title IX requirements, the court majority said, but not the whole college -- only the particular programs that benefit from the federal funds. In the case of Grove City, only the student aid office was subject to Title IX enforcement, the court said.
That didn't give the civil rights activists what they wanted, but it simplified their work. All they have to do now is to push through an apparently willing Congress legislation that says specifically that federal funds to any part of an institution brings the whole institution under the federal civil rights requirements.
Hearings on just such legislation -- the Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1985 -- start today in Philadelphia. It's hard to see how any right-minded legislator could vote against it.
The alternative, as participants in a press luncheon sponsored by the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights argued last week, is to let stand such anomalies as these:
* The young woman at Northeastern University whose sexual harassment complaint remains uninvestigated because, while the university has received millions of dollars in federal aid, the alleged harassment took place in a building constructed without federal money;
* The discrimination complaint brought on behalf of black students in the Mecklenburg County, Va., schools, being unresolved because it hasn't been determined whether the program in which the discrimination allegedly occurred received federal funds.
It was possible to argue that an institution should be able, by refusing to participate in federal grant programs, to avoid federal regulation. But once the Supreme Court passed that threshold, it is hard to see how anyone could argue rationally against legislation that says aid to a college's science department, or to a hospital's maternity ward, is aid to the college or the hosptial.
Early indications are that Congress won't even try. Legislation similar to the Civil Rights Restoration Act was filibustered to death in the waning days of the last Congress, but after it had cleared the House overwhelmingly and had garnered 63 cosponsors in the Senate. Grove City was difficult. The current legislation is as easy as voting against discrimination based on sex, race, age or handicap. It should pass without a significant fight.