Let me begin with the story of the undergraduate who was sexually harassed in the wrong building. She didn't know this when she filed a complaint to the federal government. After all, Title 9 banned any form of sex discrimination in a college receiving tax dollars, and hers had plenty of those dollars.
The government, however, demurred. It wouldn't even investigate the incident because the scene of the alleged civil rights violation was a building that had been constructed without a single federal penny. If she claimed to have been harassed in the dorm, a dorm spruced up by the taxpayers, she would have had a case.
This is just one tale in the current annals of civil-rights follies. There are a host of others featuring the handicapped, minorities, older workers, you name it. They all came into being after the Supreme Court decision in the Grove City College case.
In 1984, the court ruled that laws banning discrimination applied to the specific program receiving federal aid, not to the entire institution. If a school had federal money in the engineering department and discriminated against you in the athletic department, tough luck.
This ruling, a judicial cluster bomb, was dropped onto 20 years of civil- rights legislation, blasting loopholes everywhere. Any school, government, hospital, airport that received tax dollars for some programs could still discriminate against assorted Americans in other programs.
The results alarmed civil-rights supporters, who formed a coalition to overturn the decision and get things back to where they were. Their Civil Rights Restoration Act was passed by the House in 1984 by a margin of 375 to 34. But the bill was derailed in the Senate. When it was re-introduced last year, it was suddenly stopped cold. It got stuck on abortion.
The Catholic Conference of Bishops, long a stalwart supporter of civil rights, withdrew its support for the bill. It didn't like one old regulation in Title 9 that made it possible to sue a college that excluded abortion from its health services. Catholic colleges were already exempt from this ruling, but the church wants everyone exempt. Instead of restoring the civil-rights laws -- the cohesive principle of the various groups in this coalition -- the church wants to rewrite them.
Others in the coalition, pro- and anti-abortion, understand the church's position. But, as Judith Lichtman of the Women's Legal Defense Fund says, "This isn't the place to fight on the abortion issue." Like many others, she is convinced that "the Catholic church is being used by the far right and by this administration. They are running interference for people who want to ruin the bill."
At the moment, there are actually two bills in Congress. The original bill can't pass because of anti-abortion opposition. The amended bill, favored by the church, could probably pass, but it isn't acceptable to the bill's original sponsors.
Two decades of civil-rights law now hang on what is called, on Capitol Hill, "language," the acceptable words of compromise. Among the leaders of this linguistic search brigade is Mary Rose Oakar (D-Ohio), who is Catholic, a strong women's rights supporter and an opponent of federal funding for abortion.
Both groups, the Catholic church and the women's groups are in favor of civil rights," says Oakar, who has played umpire here before. "We're down to one isolated issue holding up the works. The major thrust is too important to let the whole thing go down the drain. We are trying to get some language that is acceptable to both groups."
Oakar believes that she is "very close" to those magic words. But a congressional aide working on this issue says, "I have gone from cautious optimism to cautious pessimism." If there are magic words, no one I spoke to on either side of the issue would utter them.
The search stopwatch is ticking away. In a few weeks it will be too late even to process a bill through this term. Civil-rights opponents could win just by watching and grinning. Meanwhile, if you know an undergraduate who's about to be sexually harassed, tell her she better make sure it's in the right building.