On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled 7-1 that the all-male policy of the state-supported Virginia Military Institute violates women’s constitutional rights to equal protection. Feminist Majority President Eleanor Smeal said, “One more male bastion bites the dust. At last, ïseparate but equal’ for women and girls in the military goes to the dust bin of history — where it belongs.” The Court ordered VMI to admit women because the separate program at the private Mary Baldwin College is not an equivalent education. However, the Court did not upgrade the level of scrutiny in sex discrimination cases to the same strict legal standard used in race bias cases, keeping the standard at mid-level and allowing government to treat men and women differently if the treatment is “substantially related to an important objective.” The Clinton administration had asked for the scrutiny level to be raised to strict.
VMI and South Carolina’s The Citadel are the only all-male, state-supported military colleges in the U.S. VMI and Virginia were sued by the federal government in 1990 for unlawfully discriminating against women with VMI’s all-male policy in effect since the school was founded in 1839. The Supreme Court ruling overturns an earlier ruling by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals which held that the opportunities offered men and women need only be “substantively comparable” but not the same. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote that “Virginia has not shown substantial equality in the separate educational opportunities” and that “Virginia’s remedy affords no cure at all for the opportunities and advantages withheld from women who want a VMI education and can make the grade.”
The ruling is also expected to apply to the Citadel. Justice Clarence Thomas did not participate in the case because his son attends VMI, and Justice Antonin Scalia was the lone dissenter.