'91 anti-bias law not retroactive, U.S. court rules

September 16, 1992|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Racial, religious and sex bias of the kinds outlawed by the 1991 federal civil rights law are free of legal challenge if they happened before last fall, a federal appeals court here ruled yesterday in a major victory for the Bush administration.

In a 2-1 decision, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the law -- fought by President Bush for two years before he signed it last year under political pressure -- only applies to new incidents of discrimination.

The appeals court, considered by many to be second in prestige to the Supreme Court, thus added its view to the spreading controversy over the backward reach -- or lack of it -- of the 1991 law.

Civil rights advocates have been arguing that Congress meant the law to be retroactive, but the Bush administration has been arguing in federal courts across the country that the law should only apply to incidents that occurred after last Nov. 21 -- the date Mr. Bush signed it.

The dispute has reached the Supreme Court in a pending case from Indiana, and the justices could agree as early as next month to step in and settle the question.

Aside from the appeals court's general ruling yesterday against the law's use against past episodes of bias, its decision means in particular that Jewish-owned companies that lost business because of religious bias, or Jewish workers who were fired because of their faith, cannot take advantage of the 1991 law for prejudice in the past.

Yesterday's court decision involved a Washington computer software company, Computer Security International Inc., owned by a Jewish couple: Alan F. Gersman, the company president, and his wife.

The company claimed that it was cut off from a contract in 1987 when a manager for a customer found out about the owners' religion. The customer was sued over the actions of the its new manager, who was of Arab descent.

Under federal civil rights law before last year, such terminations were not illegal. The Supreme Court ruled in 1989 that a law dating back to 1866, assuring minorities of equal right to economic opportunities, did not apply to loss of business or firing from jobs as a result of bias.

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