Mississippi University for Women v. Hogan: The Court’s Ruling
In Mississippi University for Women, the Supreme Court noted that insofar as MUW’s policy discriminated on the basis of sex, it was subject to scrutiny under the Equal Protection Clause. Over the years, the Court developed three tests to determine whether state policies are unconstitutional. Strict scrutiny, applied in cases involving fundamental rights such as those protected under the federal Constitution for suspect classes such as those composed of members of a certain race, is the most difficult test for a state to overcome, because it requires a compelling governmental interest that is narrowly tailored. Rational basis, on the other hand, requires a state only to demonstrate the presence of a rational relationship to a legitimate state interest; it is usually easy for states to meet this burden. A third test, intermediate scrutiny, is discussed below.
As the dispute made its way to court, a federal trial court in Mississippi University for Women applied the rational basis test in upholding the female-only admission policy. However, the Supreme Court reasoned that the proper test was not rational basis, but rather, the so-called intermediate scrutiny test. Intermediate scrutiny requires that a state show that a gender-based classification is substantially related to an important government objective. By using the intermediate test, the Court recognized there might be limited circumstances that would allow a state to treat men and women differently. The Court was of the opinion that the judiciary will attempt to look at gender-based classifications without resorting to stereotypes about the proper roles for men and women in society.
Utilizing the intermediate scrutiny test, the Court determined that the admission policy at MUW was unconstitutional. First, the Court found that the Equal Protection Clause prohibits any discrimination on the basis of sex, whether manifested in unequal treatment of men or women. Thus, to the Court, the fact Hogan was male was inconsequential. Second, the Court explained that a defending institution has the burden of demonstrating an “exceedingly persuasive justification” for the discrimination. The Court rejected Mississippi’s argument that it was justified in admitting only women to compensate for discrimination against women. In rejecting this claim, the Court determined that this was not a persuasive justification, because women were not being discriminated against in the nursing profession, and the policy, in fact, perpetuated the stereotype that nursing was “women’s work.”
Third, the Court indicated that an institution must prove that the actions serve “important governmental objectives” and that the actions are “substantially related to the achievement of the goal.” The Court observed that the record showed that males were allowed to attend and audit nursing classes but not allowed to take course work for credit. This fact, according to the Court, undermined MUW’s argument because there was a lack of evidence that the presence of men in the classroom negatively impacted women.
In a more recent case, U.S. v. Virginia (1996), the Supreme Court considered whether a state military, all-male school unconstitutionally discriminated against women. Using the intermediate scrutiny test and reasoning similar to the analysis it applied in Mississippi University for Women, the Court declared the male-only admission policy violated the Equal Protection Clause.
Mississippi University for Women, along with more recent Court cases regarding male-only military schools, provides insight on gender discrimination. Even so, it is important to keep in mind that Title IX, the primary vehicle for combating gender-based discrimination, explicitly limits what types of educational institutions are allowed to have single-sex admission policies. Private undergraduate programs are generally exempt from Title IX’s prohibition of single-sex admission policies as are religious institutions if they obtain waivers. For most institutions, Title IX provides more guidance regarding discrimination based on sex and gender equity.