NORTH CAROLINA — A federal appeals court ruled today that a K-8 public charter school is required to comply with constitutional and federal law requirements that apply to traditional public schools in a case involving a uniform policy requiring girls to wear skirts as a condition of attending school. This is the first time a federal appeals court has recognized that charter schools receiving public funds are subject to the same constitutional and civil rights safeguards as traditional public schools. The American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of North Carolina, and the law firm Ellis & Winters LLP originally filed this challenge on behalf of three Brunswick County students.
“Nothing in the Equal Protection Clause prevents public schools from teaching universal values of respect and kindness,” wrote Judge Barbara Keenan of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. “But those values are never advanced by the discriminatory treatment of girls in a public school.”
The students challenging the policy, who were in kindergarten, fourth, and eighth grades when the case was filed, argued that the skirts requirement signaled that school administrators valued their education less than that of boys and that wearing skirts limited their movement and made them uncomfortable in various weather conditions and other school situations like playing freely at recess or sitting on the floor.
“I’m glad the girls at Charter Day School will now be able to learn, move, and play on equal terms as the boys in school,” said Bonnie Peltier, the mother of a former Charter Day School student who was a client in the case. “In 2022, girls shouldn’t have to decide between wearing something that makes them uncomfortable or missing classroom instruction time.”
Charter Day School argued before the court of appeals that its students did not have any constitutional rights while attending school and that Title IX, the federal law prohibiting gender discrimination in publicly-funded schools did not prohibit dress codes that impose different rules for boys and girls. It justified the dress code by arguing that boys and girls are different and that girls are more delicate and in need of protection than boys.
The Fourth Circuit ruled against Charter Day School on both arguments, finding that the school is subject to the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection, and further, that the dress code violated that guarantee, observing that it was “difficult to imagine a clearer example of a rationale based on impermissible gender stereotypes” than the school’s justifications for the policy.
The Court further recognized that Title IX, the federal law that prohibits sex discrimination in federally-funded education programs, applies to dress codes that draw distinctions based on sex, and remanded to the district court to assess whether the skirts requirement had excluded the plaintiffs from educational benefits or opportunities or otherwise discriminated against them based on sex under that federal statute.
“Today’s decision is a victory for North Carolina’s students attending public charter schools, and should put charter schools across the country on notice that they must follow the same rules as traditional public schools when it comes to guaranteeing students’ equal educational opportunities,” said Galen Sherwin, senior staff attorney with the ACLU Women's Rights Project. “As the opinion recognizes, dress codes that enforce different rules based on students’ sex reinforce old-fashioned conventions of how girls should dress, and signal that girls are not equal to boys. These discriminatory gender stereotypes are harmful and have no place in our public schools.”
“We appreciate that the court recognized that the public charter school’s archaic dress code policy is discriminatory and violates the Constitution and that it may well also violate Title IX,” said Irena Como, deputy legal director at the ACLU of North Carolina. “These uniform requirements seek to police girls’ bodies, particularly LGBTQ+ and Black and Brown students, and can further harm transgender, nonbinary, and gender non-conforming students by reinforcing binary sex categories.”