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Filling the civil rights vacuum

The lone black employee at a Birmingham, Ala., equipment company was constantly harassed. In one incident, the owner placed a sandwich on the floor during lunch and said, "Here you go, my nigger." The employee was demoted after a brief stint as shop foreman because the owner said it was unseemly for a black to hold such a high position. The worker sued for damages and was awarded more than $150,000, according to People For The American Way, a civil liberties organization. But the award was thrown out on appeal, as a direct result of a series of 1989 Supreme Court rulings that severely weakened federal protections against job discrimination.

Unfortunately, such discrimination in the work place, although not always as blatant, is still very real. But those who once looked to the federal courts for relief have little to cheer about these days. Faced with an increasingly conservative Supreme Court and a White House that's at best ambivalent on the issue, civil rights groups have turned to Congress for relief.

Now a bipartisan group in Congress has responded with an omnibus bill designed to overturn the court decisions that limited the scope of job protection available under two major federal laws: the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The Civil Rights Act of 1990 would be the most significant congressional move against discrimination since 1988, when lawmakers managed to override President Reagan's veto and effectively reverse a court decision limiting anti-bias rules at academic institutions that receive federal aid. The new bill's major provisions would:

Specify that the 1866 law used to bar discrimination in hiring also prohibits harassment or discrimination once a worker is on the job. In a case last summer the court had ruled that it applied only to hiring.

Return to the employer the burden of proving that a policy that effectively discriminates against women or minorities was a business necessity. The court last year reversed precedent and shifted the burden of proof to the worker _ a potentially expensive proposition.

Put a strict time limit on lawsuits challenging court-approved affirmative action plans. Last year the court opened the door to belated challenges to such plans.

Allow a reasonable deadline for challenging a policy that could be discriminatory, since the impact of such policies sometimes takes years to be felt.

Grant religious and ethnic minorities and women the same rights to sue for job-bias damages currently available to racial minorities under the 1866 law. Currently under Title VII they are limited to back pay or reinstatement.

State unambiguously that all prejudice in job decisions is illegal, even when the employer can show that the same result would have been reached had no prejudice been involved.

The Bush administration has reacted negatively to the bill so far, continuing a series of puzzling signals that raise doubts about the president's commitment to civil rights. Business groups also are gearing up to fight it.

Various rights groups are lining up behind the bill, and the American Bar Association endorsed it last week. Whether it is a sufficient or lasting remedy for weakened job protection is yet to be seen, because what Congress giveth, Congress can take away.

The Supreme Court, on the other hand, is loath to reverse one of its own rulings, and it has the final say about what any law means. For that reason, the civil rights community would much prefer a high court that understands that discrimination in the work place is very real, and that it continues to harm ordinary people.

Sad to say, such a court is not a likely prospect anytime soon.