The men and women coming home from the Persian Gulf deserve to find jobs, not job discrimination. The American military is an equal opportunity employer, but too many American businesses are not.

A strong civil rights law will give returning veterans the same freedom from discrimination in civilian life that they had in the armed forces.The bill moving through Congress is designed to end discrimination in the workplace and give all workers a fair chance to get ahead on the basis of individual ability and effort. No one should be denied a job or promotion because of bigotry and prejudice.

I oppose quotas, and I don't know anyone who wants them. Republicans shouting quotas are simply trying to confuse the public and conceal their own refusal to challenge businesses that discriminate. The battle line in the controversy is not white versus black workers or male versus female workers - it is all workers versus employers who discriminate.

Job discrimination is wrong. Prohibiting it has nothing to do with quotas, and everything to do with equal opportunity. Americans willing to work deserve a level playing field, not a field tilted against women and minorities. The most effective way to guarantee such a field is to apply the full force of the law against businesses that discriminate.

The Civil Rights Act of 1991 does not ask special treatment for anyone - only fair treatment for everyone. The issue is discrimination, not quotas, and the country understands the difference.

Ask any worker. Subtle and not-so-subtle forms of discrimination are rampant in the workplace - the 1990s version of the "No Irish Need Apply" prejudice that my parents and grandparents endured in Boston.

Today, the issue is not just racial discrimination, but discrimination against women, against older and disabled workers and against Hispanic, Jewish and many other workers. It's time to stop irresponsible bosses who permit sexual harassment of female workers. It's time for Congress to stand up for all working men and women and stop coddling employers who practice or tolerate any form of discrimination.

Current laws are flawed, and Supreme Court decisions in recent years have added to the problem by creating new loopholes in old protections.

One of two major controversies about the bill involves remedies available to workers suffering from discrimination. By an unfortunate quirk of current law, victims of intentional race discrimination can sue for damages, no strings attached. But victims of sex discrimination can't, and neither can victims of anti-semitism. Liability for damages is a powerful weapon against bigoted employers - and women and religious minorities deserve it too.

Our bill confers that right. But some Republicans, heeding pleas by the business lobby, have proposed alternatives that protect business and restrict remedies available to women, religious minorities and the disabled. These workers are not second-class citizens and they do not deserve second-class remedies.

The other major controversy involves employers' use of unfair tests and practices that create a "disparate impact" by excluding women and minorities from jobs.

Our bill restores the law in effect from 1971 to 1989, which required employers to prove such practices are related to job performance. In the 18 years while that requirement was on the statute books, no one seriously contended that it led to quotas or "hiring by the numbers."

Yet, under pressure from business, this protection was weakened by the Supreme Court in 1989. Our bill restores the prior law - nothing more, but also nothing less.

The Bush administration and Republicans in Congress should stop kowtowing to business and start paying more than lip service to the battle against bias.

(Senator Kennedy of Massachusetts is chairman of the Labor and Human Resources Committee.)