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Court invalidates VMI's exclusion of women (27Jun96)

On June 26, 1996, the US Supreme Court, by a vote of 7-1, declared that excluding women from the Virginia Military Institute, a state supported all-male college, violates the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment (US vs. Virginia). Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote the Court's majority opinion, which also rejected the adequacy of Virginia's proposed leadership program at a private women's college as a remedy for VMI's exclusivity. Justice Antonin Scalia's dissent claimed that "change is forced upon Virginia... not by democratic processes but by" court order. Justice Clarence Thomas, whose son attends VMI, did not participate in the decision.

Lawyers for VMI argued that the men-only policy is based on a philosophy of leadership training that involves an extremely challenging physical and emotional military-style discipline (the "adversative" method). The state claimed that admitting women would make the school fundamentally alter its curriculum, which is justified by the state's interest in providing educational opportunities to students who can benefit from single-sex education. Virginia argued that a separate-but-equal educational opportunity for women is available at the state supported Virginia Women's Institute for Leadership at nearby Mary Baldwin College. VWLI, established under a 1994 court order holding that Virginia could not provide a single-sex military style education for men without also providing a comparable opportunity for women, does not use VMI's adversative method. VWLI uses a cooperative method to build self-esteem.

Lawyers for the US government, challenging VMI's exclusion of women, argued that, like racially segregated schools, there is no sufficient justification for maintaining tax-supported, sex-segregated institutions of higher education using different educational philosophies based on gender stereotypes. It also argued that the two programs are not equal -- VMI's resources, reputation, and the value of its degrees being significantly greater than VWLI's. Finally, the US disputed Virginia's claim that VMI's adversative method must substantially change with the admission of women.

Some VMI cadets expressed disappointment at the Court's decision, claiming that the presence of women will disturb cadet cohesion. The head of VMI, Josiah Bunting, said "This is a savage disappointment for the alumni." Attorney General Janet Reno said, "The Supreme Court overwhelmingly has given life to the promise in the Constitution that all of us deserve an equal shot at educational opportunity."

Sources: Linda Greenhouse, The New York Times WWW edition, 27Jun96; Joan Biskupic, Washington Post WWW edition, 27Jun96.

Related topics:

bulletequal protection of the law
bulletgender classifications


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