Saturday, March 30, 2019
In his opinion in Peltier v. Charter Day School, Inc., Senior United States District Judge Malcolm J. Howard in the Eastern District of North Carolina held that the dress code of the Charter Day School corporation mandating that girl students wear skirts violated the Equal Protection Clause.
The bulk of Judge Howard's 36 page opinion concerned the threshold matter of state action given that Charter Day School (CDS) is a private nonprofit corporation. CDS described itself as a "traditional values" charter school and operated under North Carolina statutes allowing and regulating charter schools. Judge Howard determined that CDS had responsibility for the dress code (unlike another defendant), was viewed as a public school under state law, was performing an historical, exclusive, and traditional state function, and was subject to pervasive regulation including regarding suspensions for dress code violations.
On the Equal Protection Clause issue, Judge Howard noted that grooming and dress codes did not fit neatly into the doctrine of sex discrimination articulated in United States v. Virginia (VMI) (1996), noting that the CDS argued that intermediate scrutiny should not apply, but rather a "comparable burden" analysis. However, Judge Howard determined that even under a "comparative burden" analysis, the skirts requirement for girls did not "pass muster." Judge Howard stated that the skirts requirement was not consistent with community norms: women and girls have worn both pants and skirts in school and professional settings since the 1970s.
In considering the interests CDS asserted, including that the skirts requirement "helps the students act appropriately toward the opposite sex," Judge Howard found that there was no evidence to substantiate this, including a comparison to the days when there were exceptions to the only-skirts requirement. Moreover, the CDS board members could not explain when deposed how the skirts requirement furthered the goal. And while CDS stressed their students' good performance, there was no link between the performance and the skirts policy.
As Judge Howard implied, mandating girl students wear skirts has become anachronistic. However, as Judge Howard also noted, this does not mean that all gender-specific dress codes violate equal protection. For more about school dress codes and enforcing gender norms, see Dressing Constitutionally.
image: girls in pants in Minneapolis, 1929, via