Officials at West Georgia College contend that the federal government cannot use the threat of a federal funds cutoff to force them to provide a sign-language interpreter for a deaf student. Their reason: None of the college's $2 million in federal aid goes directly to the program in which the student wants to enroll.
At the University of California at San Francisco, a clerical worker and part-time poet was turned down for a typing job because she is unable to speak. She complained to the U.S. Education Department's Office for Civil Rights but was told the office had no grounds on which to investigate her complaint.
In Perryville, Ariz., a prison guard was fired because of his hearing impairment. Later he was told by the Education Department that although the prison received some federal money to educate prisoners, as a guard he was not in close enough contact with federally aided prisoners to justify a government investigation of his complaint.
Civil rights organizations cite these examples as proof that the Reagan administration has used a 1984 Supreme Court ruling, Grove City v. Bell, to restrict its enforcement of antidiscrimination laws.
In earlier days, the federal government might have investigated each of these cases of alleged discrimination and used its two-decades-old enforcement tool -- the threat of a federal funds cutoff -- to force a change. The government used the flow of federal funds into those institutions -- for any purpose -- as grounds to enter such cases.
That all changed when the Supreme Court ruled that only the specific program or activity getting federal assistance was covered by federal civil rights laws. But the justices said unanimously that institutions with students receiving federal aid are obligated to some extent to comply with civil rights statutes.
That decision, involving Grove City College in Pennsylvania, set a tough new standard that significantly curtailed the coverage of federal civil rights laws. Since that ruling, the Education Department has halted at least 61 investigations of discrimination because the link between federal funds and programs in which the alleged discrimination occurred was weak.
"Almost certainly, these 61 suspended complaints represent only the tip of the iceberg," said Rep. Claudine Schneider (R-R.I.), who cited a list of the cases at a hearing last week. "This list is to me conclusive proof that our worst fears are becoming true."
Harry M. Singleton, assistant secretary of education for civil rights, testified that Schneider's figures were essentially accurate, but said the cases had been put on hold while Congress considers legislation to restore the coverage of civil rights laws to its pre-Grove City levels.
In other cases where the Education Department has launched investigations, it has often resorted to legal contortions -- or lengthy detective work -- to establish a connection between an institution's federal funds and the alleged discrimination.
For example, the department decided that it could investigate a case of alleged sex discrimination against female athletes at Laney College in Oakland, Calif., even though the school's athletics department received no federal funds. A government lawyer had discovered that a portion of a $4 million construction grant had been used a decade ago to build a campus gymnasium.
And at the University of California at Berkeley, the department entered another case of alleged discrimination against female athletes when it discovered a thin link -- $19,000 in federal money went to pay four students on work-study grants for jobs in the athletics department.
But at California's Victor Valley Community College, an investigation into possible sex discrimination in athletics was discontinued because of a lack of a federal-funding connection.
Some civil rights lawyers who monitor the Education Department's civil rights effort said the difference between the Victor Valley case -- where no federal-funding link was found -- and the other two California cases shows that the department's enforcement effort has been "haphazard" since the Grove City College ruling.
A number of groups, including the Women's Equity Action League and the American Association of University Women, sued the Education Department last year, accusing the department of applying the Grove City decision "inconsistently around the country," said Margaret Kohn, a lawyer with the National Women's Law Center.
Documents from the Education Department investigations after the Grove City College ruling indicate widespread confusion surrounding the new restrictions on the coverage of civil rights laws.
The case of the San Francisco clerical worker/poet is illustrative. The woman, who is unable to speak because of a physical handicap, was working in the university's poetry center when she saw an advertisement for a typist in a "Poets-in-the-Schools" program.
The announcement made no mention of telephone answering as a part of the job, so the woman thought she was qualified because of her experience typing for the poetry center. But after applying, she was told that speaking was required.
She complained to the Office for Civil Rights, which decided it lacked authority to investigate her charges. Later, Timothy Spofford, a regional attorney in San Francisco, wrote:
"It is my opinion that under Grove City we do not have jursidiction to investigate this complaint. My opinion would be altered if only we were able to establish that the recipient's Humanities Building, in which the California "Poet-in-the-Schools" program maintains its office, was built with Education Department monies."