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News Analysis: Compromise Civil Rights Bill Hailed As Benefiting Jews, Other Minorities

The new civil rights bill, which cleared its final vote in Congress last week and is expected to be signed shortly by President Bush, is seen as bolstering protection against job discrimination for Jews as well as women and various minority groups.

“Many of us in the Jewish community have been working on the bill since February 1990, and there is a general sense of exhaustion,” said Michael Lieberman, associate director and counsel of the Anti-Defamation League Washington office.

“The final bill is not perfect, not the way we wanted it to be,” Lieberman said. “But it is an important achievement.”

The Senate approved the bill Oct. 30 by a 93-5 vote, after Bush worked out compromises on a Democratic bill with Sen. John Danforth (R-Mo). The House of Representatives, which earlier approved the Democratic version, endorsed the compromise bill Nov. 7 by a vote of 381-38.

The compromise bill moves the conditions for seeking legal remedies for job discrimination nearer to what they were under the Supreme Court’s 1971 Griggs vs. Duke Power Co. ruling, said Judith Golub, legislative director for the American Jewish Committee.

Griggs was overturned in 1989 by several Supreme Court rulings that made it more difficult to prove unintentional discrimination on the part of employers.

Golub said the new civil rights bill sends “a message to the court that they are too cramped in their reading” of the discrimination laws.

WILL NOT RESULT IN QUOTAS

The other major element of the civil rights bill allows those who suffer discrimination on the basis of sex, religion, national origin or physical disability to sue for damages.

Until now, only victims of racial discrimination could do this, under an 1886 law passed during the Reconstruction era. The new bill would allow suits not just for discrimination in hiring decisions but also for on-the-job discrimination, including sexual harassment, as well as bias in dismissals and promotions.

But “first and foremost, this bill will not result in the imposition of quotas,” said Lieberman of ADL. “This has been a primary concern” of Jewish organizations.

ADL and several other Jewish groups had denied all along that the bill, even in its earlier incarnations, would have led to minority hiring quotas. But Bush vetoed the 1990 bill and was prepared to veto this year’s bill on the grounds that it would have resulted in quotas.

Several Jewish officials admitted privately that they could not see much difference on the quota issue between the original Democratic bill and the compromise version that the White House ultimately accepted.

Many pundits had attributed Bush’s change of mind to the controversy that developed over sexual harassment during the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

There has also been concern that the Republican Party could be damaged badly on its commitment to racial justice if David Duke, a Republican state legislator and ex-leader of the Ku Klux Klan, is elected governor of Louisiana.

Golub of AJCommittee said the important outcome of the compromise may be to “send a signal that using race divisively is off the agenda” in next year’s political campaign.

Like Bush, two Orthodox groups, the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America and Agudath Israel of America, had expressed concern that the original bill would result in quotas because employers would institute them to avoid costly legal action.

ORTHODOX GROUPS MAINLY SATISFIED

But William Rapfogel, executive director of the Orthodox Union’s Institute for Public Affairs, said his group is “happy that there is a civil rights bill.”

He said that while there is lingering concern that the bill could result in quotas over unintentional discrimination, the compromise measure is a move in the right direction.

Agudath Israel issued a statement saying it feels the new bill “does not unreasonably jeopardize the standard of merit-based employment.”

But the group cautioned that employers might still resort to quotas because they are still required to follow statistical guidelines.

The fact, though, that most major Jewish groups are satisfied that the civil rights bill will not lead to quotas has had a healing effect on strains between the black and Jewish communities, at least on the national level, according to Rabbi David Saperstein, co-director and counsel of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations’ Religious Action Center.

He noted that Bush even mentioned the stand taken by Jewish groups, because he knew that the organized Jewish community opposes quotas in any form.

Saperstein and others also pointed out that the bill provides “added protection against religious discrimination” for Jews and other religious minorities.

But the Lieberman of ADL believes that Jews already had that right, based on recent Supreme Court interpretations of the 1866 law.

However, Mark Pelavin, Washington representative of the American Jewish Congress, said it is still an “open question” whether Jews are considered a race or a religious minority under the 1866 law, which only covers racial discrimination.

DISMAY OVER CEILING ON DAMAGES

The new bill also contains two other measures that could benefit Jews, Lieberman said. One would bar “race-norming,” the practice of adjusting federal test scores on the base of race or ethnic background.

The other extends the protection of anti-discrimination laws to U.S. citizens working for American companies abroad. “Any Jew who works for an American company abroad is now covered,” Lieberman said.

The one compromise in the bill that still upsets many Jewish organizations, as well as women’s groups and other supporters of the original bill, is that a ceiling of $300,000 has been placed on the amount of damages that women, religious minorities and the disabled can receive for discrimination.

Golub of AJCommittee said there is already a move in Congress to introduce legislation that will remove the caps. But the main reason for damages is to get employers to “end discrimination in the first place,” she said.

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