Equal Protection Analysis

The Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution declares that no state may “deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” Adopted in 1868, the Fourteenth Amendment was intended to protect African Americans from discrimination by the states in the aftermath of the Civil War. Since its adoption, the Equal Protection Clause has become one of the most important constitutional provisions for the protection of individual rights. In particular, the Equal Protection Clause has been an important concept in the law of public education.

In that context, the courts have invoked the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to prohibit the segregation of school children by race, to bar sex-based discrimination in educational settings, to guarantee access to the public schools by children whose parents are not legal residents, and to protect gay and lesbian students and teachers from discriminatory treatment. This provision has been very important in ensuring equal educational opportunities in the nation’s public schools, as discussed in this entry.

What the Law Says

By its own terms, the Fourteenth Amendment applies only to state and local governments. The Constitution contains no Equal Protection Clause that applies to the federal government. However, to the extent that the federal government classifies persons or groups in a way that would have violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, courts find that they violate the Due Process Clause. The courts rely on the Fifth Amendment when dealing with the federal government, because its application is limited to this context. The Fourteenth Amendment applies to the actions of states. Perhaps the best example of how this distinction plays out occurred in a case that was resolved on the same day that the Supreme Court struck down racial segregation in public schools in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954). In Bolling v. Sharpe (1954), the Court applied the Due Process Clause in the Fifth Amendment, rather than the Equal Protection Clause, to invalidate racial segregation in public schools in Washington, D.C, because it is under the control of the federal government.

Over the years, the U.S. Supreme Court has applied three standards when examining challenges to governmental actions based on the denial of equal protection. Laws that discriminate against “suspect” classifications of individuals or that infringe on fundamental rights are presumptively void and are subjected to strict judicial scrutiny. Such laws can pass constitutional muster only if they can be shown to be narrowly tailored to meet a compelling governmental interest. The Court has declared these classifications to be suspect under the Equal Protection Clause, namely, race, ethnicity, and national origin or being a foreigner.

At the same time, the Supreme Court has recognized certain “quasi-suspect” classifications: laws that discriminate based on sex or laws that draw distinctions between legitimate and illegitimate children. Laws that discriminate against these quasi-suspect classes of individuals are subject to an intermediate level of judicial scrutiny. Such laws are upheld only if they are substantially related to important governmental interests.

Finally, laws that discriminate against individuals based on other kinds of classifications are subjected to only a minimal level of judicial scrutiny. The courts uphold these governmental actions against an equal protection challenge if they are shown to be at least rationally related to legitimate governmental interests.

Cases Involving Race

Undoubtedly, the most important case in the field of education law to apply equal protection analysis is Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954), in which the Supreme Court struck down segregated school systems in four states. The plaintiffs in Brown contended that segregated schools were not “equal” and that African American students were thus deprived of their right to equal protection of the laws. One issue in Brown was the continuing validity of the “separate but equal” doctrine that the Court had adopted in 1896 in Plessy v. Ferguson. In Plessy, the Court upheld the constitutionality of a Louisiana law that required railroad companies to segregate their passengers by race in so-called separate-but-equal railroad coaches.

In Brown, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled in favor of the plaintiff schoolchildren and disavowed the “separate but equal” doctrine of Plessy. “We conclude,” the Court wrote, “that in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal” (Brown, p. 495). Therefore, the Court continued, African American children who had been segregated by race in the schools had been “deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment” (p. 495).

Since Brown, the Supreme Court has approved of racial classifications in public education in the context of admitting students to a public law school. In Grutter v. Bollinger (2003), the Court ruled that the University of Michigan Law School had a compelling interest in obtaining the educational benefits that come from a racially and ethnically diverse student body and this justified the use of race as one factor among others in the selection of students for admission to the study of law. However, in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 (2007), a divided Court, in a plurality opinion, struck down race-based school assignment plans in two public school systems, finding that educators had not established a compelling interest to justify the use of race as a basis for assigning children to public schools. Unlike Grutter, in which race was but one factor in a holistic approach to choosing law students, the school systems in Parents Involved used race in a nonindividualized and mechanical way as the decisive factor for determining which students gained admittance to schools.

Cases Involving Other Issues

In another landmark opinion, Plyler v. Doe (1982), the Supreme Court relied on the Equal Protection Clause to strike down a Texas law that permitted public school boards to bar the children of undocumented immigrants from attending the state’s public schools. In Plyler, the Court ruled that the Fourteenth Amendment prohibited the state of Texas from excluding the children of undocumented immigrants from the public schools. The Court did not think that the state’s categorization of children created a suspect class. Rather, the Court seemed to categorize the excluded children as a “quasi-suspect” class in subjecting the law to heightened scrutiny. To deny “a discrete group of innocent children the free public education that it offers to other children residing within its borders,” the Court wrote, the state of Texas was required to justify that denial “by a showing that it furthers some substantial state interest” (Plyler, p. 230). In the Court’s view, since Texas was unable to show that it had a substantial governmental interest in excluding the children of undocumented immigrants from the public schools, the statute was unconstitutional.

Equal protection analysis has also come into play in disputes about sex-based discrimination in the context of public education. In Mississippi University for Women v. Hogan (1982), for example, a male applicant to a university nursing program filed suit after he was denied admission solely on his gender. Applying a heightened standard of judicial scrutiny, the Supreme Court held that the university’s female-only admission policy could be upheld only when it was substantially related to an important governmental objective. In a divided opinion, the Court rejected the university’s arguments that its single-sex admission policy was justified as a means of compensating for past discrimination against women and ruled that the policy violated the Equal Protection Clause.

In recent years, lower federal courts have utilized the Equal Protection Clause to assist another category of public school students, gay and lesbian students. In a 1996 case, Nabozny v. Podlesny, the Seventh Circuit was of the opinion that a school board could not allow a gay student to be repeatedly harassed by peers at the same time that it protected other students from harassment. In reaching its judgment, the court did not designate gay students as a suspect or quasi-suspect class, which would have subjected school officials to heightened judicial scrutiny for their actions or inaction. Instead, under the most minimal level of scrutiny, the court observed that discrimination against a gay student in such a way was simply not rational. In a 2003 opinion, Flores v. Morgan Hill Unified School District, the Ninth Circuit reached a similar outcome in a dispute that additionally involved allegations that school officials failed to protect gay and lesbian students from harassment by other students.

Federal courts have also relied on the Equal Protection Clause to protect gay and lesbian teachers from discrimination by their public employers. In Weaver v. Nebo School District (1998), for example, a school board chose not to reappoint a female teacher to her position as girls’ volleyball coach after she revealed that she was a lesbian. The teacher sued, and a federal court ordered the board to offer her the chance to regain her coaching position. The court noted that the teacher’s sexual orientation and the community’s negative response to it had provided no rational basis for removing her from the coaching position and that the board had violated her constitutional rights under the Equal Protection Clause.

Richard Fossey

See also Bolling v. Sharpe; Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka; Grutter v. Bollinger; Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1; Plessy v. Ferguson; Plyler v. Doe

Legal Citations