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Supreme Court declines case challenging school's skirts-only dress code for girls

Al Drago
Getty Images

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday declined to take up a case challenging a skirts-only dress code for girls at a North Carolina charter school, letting stand a lower court ruling that the school's dress code violated federal law.

At the center of the case is Charter Day School, which operates independently but is designated as a public school under North Carolina state law and receives 95 percent of its funding from the government. Charter Day School says it seeks to "emphasize traditional values" and enforces a dress code that requires girls to wear skirts, jumpers, or skorts. Female students wearing skirts, the school's founder said, preserves the idea that a woman is a "fragile vessel that men are supposed to take care of and honor."

In a lawsuit brought by the ACLU, several parents of female students attending Charter Day filed a lawsuit against the school on the grounds that the skirts requirement violated the Constitution's guarantee of equal protection under the law as well as a federal anti-discrimination law known as Title IX. Lawyers for the parents argued that the skirts requirement was rooted in gender stereotypes and ultimately discriminated against female students by limiting their ability to fully participate in school activities, such as using the playground.

The Constitution's equal protection guarantee only covers public, government action, not private organizations. Charter Day School responded to the parents' lawsuit by arguing that it is not subject to the equal protection guarantee because it is a private actor fulfilling a contract with the state of North Carolina, not a public entity. As to the alleged violation of Title IX, the school argued that the law does not apply to sex-based dress codes.

In June of last year, an appeals court sided against Charter Day, ruling that the school qualifies as a "state actor" accountable to the Constitution's equal protection guarantee, and that the school "acted in clear violation" of the Constitution when enacting the dress code. Furthermore, the court said, sex-based dress codes are subject to review under Title IX.

"Innovative programs in North Carolina's public schools can and should continue to flourish, but not at the expense of constitutional protections for students," Judge Barbara Keenan wrote.

Lawyers for the school had asked the Supreme Court to review the case, arguing that the appeals court decision would hinder the ability of charter schools to make independent choices.

The lower court "unleashed" "numerous harms to charter school innovation and even farther-reaching evils," they said. Reversing the decision would "safeguard educational choice in states that do not impose constitutional requirements on charters."

On Monday, however, the Supreme Court declined their request, leaving the lower court decision intact.

"Today's announcement is a victory for the thousands of students who attend public charter schools in North Carolina and for the 3.6 million students like them nationwide," said Ria Tabacco Mar, Director of the ACLU Women's Rights Project. "Girls at public charter schools have the same constitutional rights as their peers at other public schools – including the freedom to wear pants. We will continue to fight for all girls to learn in safe and equal schools."

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Meghanlata Gupta