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WASHINGTON-The U.S. Supreme Court will decide whether a 1964 civil rights law covers instances of same-sex harassment as well as gender discrimination.

The case, Joseph Oncale vs. Sundowner Offshore Services Inc. et. al, which the court is expected to hear in the term that begins next October, has drawn the attention of the Clinton administration. The government filed a brief asking the high court to review the matter to settle whether same-sex harassment is covered under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The Equal Employment Opportunities Commission, which is responsible for enforcing Title VII, has long held that the act does provide recourse for such actions. In Oncale, however, a three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held that it did not, adding to a split among federal courts on how the law should be interpreted with regard to same-sex harassment.

Title VII prohibits employers from discriminating on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin. Courts differ on whether this covers same-gender sexual harassment as well.

The current case began with a series of incidents upon an offshore oil drilling platform operated by employees of Houston-based Sundowner. Joseph Oncale, a roustabout, claimed that his supervisor and two other employees routinely harassed him, in some cases touching him with their genitals, threatening homosexual rape and in one case, assaulting him in the shower. Mr. Oncale quit his job in November 1991 after several months on the platform.

He later sued Sundowner and three of its employees, charging that his rights under the civil rights act had been violated. He said that he had complained to the proper managers, yet nothing had been done and that he feared he would be raped by his fellow employees. The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana ruled that he had no recourse under the 1964 law, a decision the 5th Circuit upheld in 1996.

"Neither a man nor a woman can be required, as Joseph Oncale was required, to run a gauntlet of sexual abuse, as a condition of employment," reads Mr. Oncale's brief.

Sundowner's brief argues that Mr. Oncale "confuses sexual harassment and gender discrimination" and further argues that Congress "has never passed a law specifically outlawing sexual harassment."

Sundowner also argues that Mr. Oncale could have sought relief under Louisiana law. "To hold that Title VII encompasses same gender conduct would take the judiciary out of the traditional role of interpreting and reviewing a statute and into the role of legislating."

The EEOC disagrees with that interpreta-tion. "In our view, the court of appeals erred" in its decision, according to the government's brief.

"If Congress had meant to limit the reach of Title VII to discrimination against the opposite sex, it easily could have said so."