THERE has finally been some movement in the House on the Grove City legislation. The bill, designed to overturn a Supreme Court decision limiting the government's power to enforce desegregation rules in institutions receiving federal funds, had broad support in the House last year -- it was passed 375-34 -- but was blocked in the Senate. This year, supporters were braced for difficulties in the Senate, but to everyone's surprise, delay has come at the first hurdle, the House, where the bill has 205 cosponsors.
Difficulties have arisen in two areas, both controversial: abortion and religion. Under present law, educational institutions receiving federal funds may not discriminate against students or employees for reasons connected with abortion. Women who choose abortion may not be expelled, penalized or fired, and insurance provided for students and employees must treat abortion as it treats other medical procedures. There is, however, an exemption in the law if compliance would conflict with the religious tenets of an institution controlled by a religious organization. On Tuesday, the House Education and Labor Committee adopted two amendments that would change these rules. The first would remove the requirement with regard to abortion services and benefits for all institutions -- not only the religious ones; the second would broaden the religious exemption provision to include all institutions affiliated with a religious organization, a category that is presumably much larger than the one defined by control.
The House Judiciary Committee, which shared jurisdiction over this bill, has also reported it but without these two amendments. Instead, the Judiciary bill contains an expression of neutrality on the abortion regulations now in force so that a vote in favor of the bill cannot be interpreted as a ratification of the regulations.
There are many ways to deal with the difficult questions of abortion and religion in federally assisted institutions, and amending the Grove City bill is the least desirable. The abortion regulations can be changed by a sympathetic administration, or they can be repealed in separate legislation. The religious exemption already in the law appears to be working well to protect religious institutions. If it needs to be expanded for legitimate reasons, that case must be made in detail, and there is little doubt that Congress would be sympathetic. The important point is that these issues, which have already delayed consideration of the Grove City bill, should not be allowed to sink it. The bill is designed to restore the law, as it existed before the Supreme Court decision, and not to amend it extensively. Momentum will only be sustained if House leaders schedule early floor debate, and members send the bill to the Senate with a large majority. This session is already half over, and the bill must not be lost again in the confusion and rush of October.