The top legislative priority of the civil rights lobby on Capitol Hill this year is stalled in the House because of an abortion fight that supporters fear may doom the bill.
The dispute has pitted civil rights groups against a traditional ally, the Catholic Church. Some supporters of the measure who agree with the church's position have attached antiabortion language to the bill.
Efforts to forge a compromise have been made, but with Congress preparing to leave town for its month-long August recess, there is no sign of resolution or movement.
"The right-to-lifers and the Catholic Conference think they can piggyback a very acceptable bill [to] break new ground on the abortion issue," said Rep. Don Edwards (D-Calif.), a key sponsor, who added that he will prevent the bill from coming to the House floor with the antiabortion language for fear that it would be approved. "You can't take a civil rights bill and make it into an abortion bill."
The legislation is the Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1985, which would overturn the Supreme Court's 1984 Grove City ruling that narrowed the scope of four key civil rights laws.
The Supreme Court ruled in that case that Title IX of the 1972 Education Amendments, barring sex discrimination in any education "program or activity" receiving federal aid, applied only to the program receiving the aid, and not the whole institution as Congress had thought.
Three other civil rights laws -- the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the 1975 Age Discrimination Act and the 1973 Rehabilitation Act -- use the "program or activity" language and therefore were subject to the same interpretation.
The new legislation is designed to reverse the effect of the court ruling by specifying that an entire institution is covered by the civil rights law and must adhere to it, even if only one branch of it receives federal aid. Punishment for violating the law can be termination of federal aid, but only money used to support the specific discriminatory act can be cut off.
The measure was introduced in January with the expectatation that it would move swiftly through the Democratic-controlled House by late spring in preparation for a tough fight in the Republican-led Senate. A similar measure was filibustered to death there last year after easily passing the House.
In March, however, the U.S. Catholic Conference of bishops, which opposed the Grove City ruling and supported legislation to overturn it, raised objections to the bill on abortion grounds and asked for changes to deal with its concerns.
Title IX regulations state that education institutions covered by the law must treat all temporary medical disabilities, including pregnancy and termination of pregnancy, the same when providing medical care to students or employes.
In the bishops' view the restoration act would broaden Title IX and force Catholic hospitals affiliated with education institutions to perform abortions and Catholic schools to provide health insurance that pays for them.
The bishops' spokesman, Rev. J. Bryan Hehir, said recently that the Catholic conference is in "a delicate position. We are supporting the objectives of the legislation" but the bishops do not want to back the bill if it means "reaffirming the regulations on abortion."
The abortion issue was not raised by the conference last year when the bill was considered, he said, because the bishops were not aware of it then.
Supporters of the bill dispute the church's interpretation, citing a provision in the current law that exempts institutions controlled by religious organizations from having to comply with any part of the law that conflicts with their tenets.
But, to respond to the bishops' concern, Rep. Thomas J. Tauke (R-Iowa), a moderate who is a sponsor of the bill, introduced an amendment when the measure was considered by the House Education and Labor Committee.
The proposed change, which Tauke described as "abortion-neutral," states that the restoration act does not "grant or secure or deny any right" to abortion or to the funding of abortions. The panel agreed to the amendment when it approved the bill on May 21.
Supporters of the restoration act contend that Tauke's amendment would allow educational institutions to discriminate against students or employes who have had abortions. In addition, they argue, it undermines the effort to restore the civil rights law by opening the door to other amendments from those wanting to substantially dilute or kill the bill.
Tauke said he is not trying to scuttle the bill or the Title IX regulations. "What I am trying to do is pass legislation that does not force anybody to perform or pay for abortions just because that institution receives federal money," he said recently.
The bill was also brought up May 22 in the House Judiciary Committee, where Edwards was able to defeat a similar abortion amendment.
Since then, the bill has been at a standstill. An effort by two backers of the bill to develop a compromise that incorporated some of Tauke's ideas was quickly shot down. And congressional efforts to meet with the bishops have gotten nowhere.
In the meantime, supporters acknowledge that they probably have no more than 170 votes to pass the bill without some language to assuage the church's concerns.