A Federal District Judge recently ruled that a charter school dress code policy which required girls to wear skirts and prohibited girls from wearing pants or shorts, violates the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution. Many challenges in the past have rested on First Amendment grounds regarding freedom of expression. However, this case was brought on a theory of gender discrimination.
The Plaintiffs argued that the girls suffered tangible disadvantages due to the policy. The court found that the Plaintiffs established that “the girls are subject to a specific clothing requirement that renders them unable to play as freely during recess, requires them to sit in an uncomfortable manner in the classroom, causes them to be overly focused on how they are sitting, distracts them from learning, and subjects them to cold temperatures on their legs.”
The Defendant, the Charter Day School, argued the dress code was designed to garner mutual respect between the boys and the girls, particularly in that the skirts represented visual cues to promote respect between the two sexes. Striking down the policy, the school argued, would remove those visual cues and hinder a sense of respect for the opposite sex. The Court noted that even if these were legitimate interests of the state, the school failed to show how the policy advanced such interests.
The Court further noted that school dress code policies have been upheld by numerous courts and that the state does have legitimate interests in the grooming and dress of students attending schools supported by the state. However, these interests must be addressed in a uniform, gender-neutral way that does not penalize a student simply for being one sex or the other.