Brief Fact Summary.
Oklahoma statutes prohibit the sale of non-intoxicating 3.2% beer to males under the age of 21 and to females under the age of 18.
Synopsis of Rule of Law.
To withstand constitutional challenge, classifications by gender must serve important governmental objectives and must be substantially related to achievement of those objectives.
We thus hold that the operation of the Twenty-first Amendment does not alter the application of equal protection standards that otherwise govern this case.View Full Point of Law
The Oklahoma statutes that prohibit the sale of non-intoxicating 3.2% beer to males under the age of 21 and to females under the age of 18 were challenged based on the allegation that the gender-based differential constitutes a denial to males 18-20 years of age of equal protection.
Does Oklahoma statutes that prohibit the sale of non-intoxicating 3.2% beer to males under the age of 21 and to females under the age of 18 violate the Constitution?
Yes, because appellees have failed to demonstrate that the gender-based distinction closely serves to achieve the objective of enhancing traffic safety and thus the distinction cannot withstand equal protection challenge. The statistic evidence provided by the appellee does not support the objective and even if the evidence was accepted as accurate, it would only offer a weak answer to the equal protection question here.
The Court has not shown that males in this age group are in any way particularly disadvantaged, subject to systematic discriminatory treatment. Moreover, it is not the Court’s role to define what objectives are important and determine whether a particular statute is substantially related to the achievement of such objective. Both questions are so elastic as to invite subjective judicial preferences or prejudices relating to particular types of legislation. It is the legislatures that are entitled to draw factual conclusions on the basis of that determination. They can reasonably examine and conclude whether maintaining traffic safety is more important than using a minimal gender line.
Justice Powell and Stevens
Powell: The Court subjects gender-based classifications to a more critical examination than is normally applied when fundamental constitutional rights are not present. The decision thus turns on whether the state has adopted a means that bears a fair and substantial relation to the objective. The statistics offered by the state do tend generally to support the classification. Oklahoma, however, has provided such weak evidence that it does not justify the classification.
Stevens: The proper question is whether the traffic safety justification is sufficient to make an otherwise offensive classification acceptable. The classification is not without a merit because the evidence shows that more males than females in the age bracket drive and drink. However, it is hard to believe that the statute was actually intended to cope with the problem of traffic safety because it has only a minimal effect on access to a not-very-intoxicating beverage and does not prohibit its consumption.
Viewed in terms of the correlation between sex and the actual activity that Oklahoma seeks to regulate – driving while under the influence of alcohol – the statistics broadly establish that .18% of females and 2% of males in the age group of 18-20 were arrested for that offense. Such disparity can hardly form the basis for employment of a gender line as a classifying device. The evidence offered by the appellees does not satisfy that sex represents a legitimate, accurate proxy for the regulation of drinking and driving.