The Supreme Court toughened a federal law against sex discrimination in federally funded educational programs yesterday, ruling that it prohibits not only unequal treatment of girls and women at school, but also official retaliation against anyone -- male or female -- who blows the whistle on unequal treatment.
By a vote of 5 to 4, the court ruled that the federal law, known since its adoption in 1972 as Title IX, authorizes a federal lawsuit by Roderick Jackson, a girls' basketball coach in Birmingham who says he was fired in 2001 for complaining that boys' teams were receiving better equipment and practice facilities.
Writing for the majority, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor noted that Jackson's claims remain to be proven at trial, but that Title IX would be weakened unless plaintiffs such as Jackson were entitled to a day in court.
"Reporting incidents of discrimination is integral to Title IX enforcement and would be discouraged if retaliation against those who report went unpunished," O'Connor wrote. "Indeed, if retaliation were not prohibited, Title IX's enforcement scheme would unravel."
O'Connor added that minors often depend on teachers and coaches "to vindicate the rights of their students because they are better able to identify discrimination and bring it to the attention of administrators."
O'Connor was joined by Justices John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer.
The decision in Jackson v. Birmingham Board of Education, No. 02-1672, means that those who allege violations of Title IX will enjoy roughly the same right to sue for retaliation that federal law confers on those who raise charges of racial discrimination in employment.
The court's decision strengthens enforcement of Title IX at a time when the politics of the law are becoming more heated.
Many supporters of the legislation have credited it with raising the quality and quantity of women's athletic programs.
The Bush administration says it fully supports Title IX, and it supported Jackson in the case decided yesterday. Some of the arguments in O'Connor's opinion echoed arguments in the administration's friend-of-the-court brief.
At the same time, Title IX has come under fire from critics -- including such prominent Republicans as House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), a former high school wrestling coach.
The critics take issue with federal rules that seek equal rates of participation in sports between men and women. Fewer women are interested in sports, they argue, so the only way schools can achieve the requisite "proportionality" is by dropping predominantly male sports, such as wrestling.
In 2002, the Bush administration responded with a commission to study the impact of Title IX. Last week, the administration enacted a version of one commission recommendation, announcing that it would allow colleges and universities to use e-mail surveys to gauge the athletic interests of students to show that they are offering enough opportunities to meet the demand for women's sports.
Advocacy groups favoring strict Title IX enforcement said this would relax pressure on schools to ensure that males and females participate in sports at the same rate.