WASHINGTON -- American companies with overseas offices or factories have no legal duty to avoid race, sex or religious bias against their American employees working overseas, a divided Supreme Court ruled yesterday.
The U.S. civil rights law that forbids workplace discrimination by American firms does not apply outside this country, the court declared in the 6-3 ruling, which may affect at least some of the 6 million Americans who now have jobs abroad with U.S. firms.
The number of Americans working abroad is expected to increase as U.S. firms move to get heavily involved in reconstruction efforts in war-torn Kuwait. The new decision means that U.S. firms involved in such foreign operations need not hire, assign or promote their workers on an equal basis.
Americans claiming that they were victims of bias abroad have pursued about 50 complaints against American firms under U.S. civil rights law.
The Supreme Court, rejecting the view of the Bush administration and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, declared that Congress had not made clear any desire to have civil rights law enforced abroad.
Although Congress could outlaw such bias abroad, if it wishes, it must do so by a clear statement of that purpose, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist wrote for the majority. Since U.S. laws ordinarily do not apply overseas, it is not up to the courts to extend them abroad without an explicit mandate from Congress, the opinion said.
The ruling marked the latest of a string of decisions by the court in recent years giving narrow readings to civil rights laws passed by Congress. Congress has overturned some of those rulings by passing new laws with broader scope. A major effort to do more along those lines is under way on Capitol Hill this year.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., a leader of civil rights forces in Congress, denounced the ruling as "another setback for civil rights by the Rehnquist court."
The ruling was a personal defeat for Ali Salim Boureslan, a native of Lebanon and a Muslim who is now a naturalized U.S. citizen.
After working in this country as an engineer for Aramco Services Co., a Houston firm that is a subsidiary of the Arabian American Oil Co. based in Saudi Arabia, Mr. Boureslan applied to work abroad for the parent firm and held a job in Saudi Arabia for more than three years.
After he was fired in June 1984, he sued the company, claiming that he had been discriminated against on the basis of his race, religion and country of birth.
Lower courts threw out his challenge, and Mr. Boureslan, with the EEOC's support, took the issue to the Supreme Court.
Dissenting were the court's three more liberal members, Justices Harry A. Blackmun, Thurgood Marshall and John Paul Stevens.
The ruling came in the combined cases of EEOC and Boureslan vs. Arabian American Oil (Nos. 89-1838 and 89-1845).