Boys-only short hair rule (for high school basketball players) = sex discrimination?

Sex discrimination by the government is generally unconstitutional, but the rules for it aren’t quite the same as for race discrimination. The most famous distinction is that sex classifications are subject to “intermediate scrutiny” (though still scrutiny that requires an “exceedingly persuasive justification”) while race classifications are subject to “strict scrutiny”; but in practice, that semantic distinction isn’t what’s doing most of the work. Rather, there are some specific rules having to do with things such as privacy, inherent sex differences (when it comes to determinations of who is a child’s parent) and the like.

One particularly interesting question, which has arisen more under Title VII’s ban on employment discrimination (which applies to private employers as well as governmental employers) than under the Equal Protection Clause (which applies beyond just employment but only to the government), has to do with dress and grooming codes. “[R]equiring everyone to ‘look professional’ (or any other appearance goal) may mean different things for men and women because of ‘common differences in customary dress’” — and, unlike with other customs, the law is not seen as aiming to change those customs.

Monday’s 7th Circuit panel decision in Hayden v. Greensburg Community School Corp. (7th Cir. Feb. 24, 2014) discusses the broad issue at some length, in the course of considering a grooming code on public high school basketball teams: Boys, under this code, are required to cut their hair quite short, while girls aren’t.

And the court concludes that this code is unconstitutional. First, based on the record as the majority sees it, the school imposes the requirement solely on male basketball players, rather than imposing comparable but different requirements on both sexes. Second, the majority concludes, the hair length requirement doesn’t even implement well-established common modern differences in customary grooming, because the requirement is much more demanding than modern mores are (paragraph break added):

It is also worth reiterating that Coach Meyer’s policy prohibits far more than an Age-of-Aquarius, Tiny-Tim, hair-crawling-past-the-shoulders sort of hair style — it compels all male basketball players to wear genuinely short hair. In 2014, it is not obvious that any and all hair worn over the ears, collar, or eyebrows would be out of the mainstream among males in the Greensburg community at large, among the student body, or among school athletes. (Even one or two men on this court might find themselves in trouble with Coach Meyer for hair over the ears.)

We certainly agree that the pedagogical and caretaking responsibilities of schools give school officials substantial leeway in establishing grooming codes for their students generally and for their interscholastic athletes in particular. But that leeway does not permit them to impose non-equivalent burdens on school athletes based on their sex.

Whether the analysis is sound is a question I leave to readers, but the issue struck me as interesting, so I thought I’d pass the case along.

Eugene Volokh teaches free speech law, religious freedom law, church-state relations law, a First Amendment Amicus Brief Clinic, and tort law, at UCLA School of Law, where he has also often taught copyright law, criminal law, and a seminar on firearms regulation policy.
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Eugene Volokh · February 25