THOUSANDS OF WOMEN who came to this city on Sunday to march for abortion rights stayed over and spent Monday lobbying on the Hill. Their objective is to get Congress moving on the Grove City bill, which was designed to overturn a 1984 Supreme Court decision involving civil rights laws and federally funded institutions. The measure has been tied up in the House for almost a year because of somewhat peripheral but controversial questions involving religion and abortion.
The Supreme Court, in the case involving Grove City College, had limited the government's ability to enforce civil rights laws applicable to federal aid recipients. These laws, the court held, apply only to the particular program receiving federal funds -- a physics lab, for example, or a special course for the disabled -- rather than the entire institution of which that program is a part. There was an immediate response to the ruling in Congress, and a bill passed the House 375 to 34 but died in the Senate. Some initial objections to the scope of the bill were ironed out after Congress adjourned, and in 1985 a new bill was introduced, with dozens of cosponsors in the Senate and more than 200 in the House. To everyone's surprise, new opposition surfaced in the House, and the bill has been stalled there since committee action was completed last May. Abortion is the stumbling block.
Catholic bishops, who traditionally have been part of the broad civil rights lobbying coalition, have supported two amendments to the bill. The first would repeal regulations that prohibit educational institutions receiving federal funds from discriminating with regard to abortion services or benefits; the second would exempt from the regulations those institutions affiliated with religious organizations -- only those controlled by these organizations now qualify for exemption -- in cases where compliance would conflict with religious tenets. These are important questions, and they are worthy of congressional consideration. But putting the amendments on a broader, far less controversial bill, as a House committee has done, has created a stalemate.
More than 200 discrimination cases have been dismissed or postponed by federal agencies since the Grove City ruling. If the important work of clarifying the law and restoring its original intent is to go forward, the impasse on abortion must be broken. The best solution would be to reach an agreement to consider these peripheral questions in a separate bill. At the very least, a high level conference between the concerned church leaders and the sponsors of the restoration act should be scheduled to work out a compromise. Time is short, and powerful opponents of the civil rights laws at issue lie in wait in the Senate. A disagreement between longtime allies and civil rights supporters should not prevent action in the House, where the measure has a commanding majority.