The Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution states "No state shall... deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." The Equal Protection Clause, however, does not require that all people be treated equally. In some cases, if the government can show a good reason to treat one group of people differently, the courts will allow such discrimination. It is therefore up to the courts to determine whether the government has a legally justifiable reason to treat one group differently from another group.
Applying the Equal Protection Clause is challenging, as evidenced by the case of Beattie v. Line Mountain School District, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 4051. A.B. was a 12-year-old female student who attended seventh grade at Line Mountain Middle School in Pennsylvania. During the 2012-13 school year, A.B. wrestled on the Line Mountain youth team, practicing and competing against boys and girls, including high-school-age male wrestlers.
A.B. enjoyed success on the team, participating in every dual meet and posting a record of 5-3 against boys and one girl. She also participated in at least four tournaments against boys, earning second- and third-place finishes. No boy refused to wrestle A.B. due to her gender.
Toward the end of that season, A.B.'s father, Brian Beattie, learned that the school district had a policy prohibiting girls from participating on the boys' junior high and high school wrestling teams because of safety concerns regarding the "physiological differences between male and female athletes."
After learning about this policy, Beattie attended two Line Mountain school board meetings to investigate its impact on his daughter. At those meetings, he was informed that the policy would be enforced and that A.B. would not be allowed to participate on the junior high wrestling team in the coming year.
Disappointed with the school district's decision, the Beattie family filed a motion with the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania seeking a restraining order and a preliminary injunction on behalf of their daughter. In their lawsuit, which sought to allow A.B. to wrestle on the Line Mountain junior high wrestling team, the Beatties claimed that the school district's policy constitutes an unlawful discrimination on the basis of sex in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
In order to grant the Beatties' motion for injunctive relief, the court held that A.B. must demonstrate a reasonable probability of success; that A.B. would be irreparably harmed if the court denied the injunction; that any harm suffered by the school district would be minimal compared to the harm suffered by A.B. if the injunction is granted; and that granting the injunction is in the public interest.
First, the court considered whether A.B. had a reasonable probability of success since there was no dispute that the school district denied A.B. the opportunity to wrestle solely because she is a female. The court held that the school district must provide a genuine justification explaining why the classification based on gender is substantially related to an important government interest.
The school district articulated several different but related justifications for the classification, most grounded in the concept of in loco parentis, including that boys are generally stronger and have less body fat than girls and, consequently, that girls are at a greater risk of injury than boys. Other justifications included the opportunity for inappropriate physical contact occurring between opposite sexes, the responsibility of preventing sexual harassment and misconduct, as well as a perceived lowering of students' inhibitions, desensitizing them and possibly impacting moral standards for all of those who participate in the sport.
In dismissing the school district's justifications, the court held that, while providing a safe environment for students in a public school is an important government interest, a policy preventing girls from wrestling is not substantially related to that interest. There was no evidence that demonstrated A.B.'s safety was at a greater risk because of her gender than other students. The court also found that the school district did not identify a single female wrestler who had been injured by a male wrestler as a consequence of gender or any specific harm that a female suffered while wrestling, including A.B. The court also cited that some boys who may be weaker than some girls are allowed to wrestle while their safety may be equally or more at risk than that of A.B. or other capable girls.
According to the court, to uphold the classification on this basis would "suggest the very sort of well-meaning but overly paternalistic attitude about females which the Supreme Court has viewed with such concern." Consequently, because the school district presented no credible evidence that the policy preventing girls from wrestling was substantially related to the important interest of student safety, there was no sufficient justification to keep A.B. from participating in this organized sport.
Next, the court examined the school district's justification that, due to anatomical differences, girls are at a greater risk of sexual contact and harassment when they wrestle. Related to this potential for inappropriate touching, the district expressed concern that allowing girls to wrestle would make its job of preventing sexual harassment and any resulting lawsuits more difficult. In rejecting this justification, the court noted that both sexual harassment and the touching of intimate body parts could occur just as easily with two boys wrestling, and the district already had policies in place that prohibit unlawful harassment. The court ruled that the best way for the school district to avoid sexual harassment litigation was by acting to prevent sexual harassment rather than excluding females from participating in activities.
The third justification was to protect students against the perceived psychological and moral degradation accompanying coeducational wrestling. The district justified excluding girls from wrestling because it may potentially lower students' inhibitions, desensitize them and possibly impact moral standards for all those who participate in the sport. Ultimately the court found that the school district could not offer any evidence that such concerns rise to the level of an important government interest. The court stated that it was not the duty of the school to shield students from every situation that they may find objectionable or embarrassing due to their own prejudices.
The court then examined whether A.B. was able to demonstrate a "clear showing of immediate irreparable injury." The court ruled that deprivation of a constitutional right alone constitutes irreparable harm as a matter of law, and no further showing of irreparable harm was necessary. The court also found that without injunctive relief, A.B. would suffer irreparable harm in her development as a wrestler because she would miss opportunities to practice and compete. These missed opportunities would cause A.B. to fall behind in her athletic development and prevent her from competing to her fullest potential in the future.
Finally, in reviewing whether the public interest would be harmed by granting the injunction, the court held that the school district had not provided any evidence that enforcing the policy would protect female athletes from risks associated with student safety, sexual harassment and inappropriate conduct any more effectively than if A.B. were allowed to wrestle.
The outcome of the case offers an important lesson for athletic and school administrators. While the court was sensitive to and acutely aware of the school district's considerations and concerns, the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment prohibits gender discrimination. Therefore, unless the state actor can show that the rule or policy is substantially related to an important governmental objective and not just based on traditional, often inaccurate assumptions about the proper roles of men and women, it will be deemed unconstitutional.
As a result, it is essential that athletic and school administrators understand that if they create rules that interfere with or prohibit females from participating on teams with males, that the gender classifications must not rely on overboard generalizations about the different talents, capacities or preferences of males and females.
This article originally appeared in the April 2014 issue of Athletic Business under the headline, "Pinned Down."