Virginia’s public institutions of higher learning include military college (VMI). The United States, the petitioner, argues that the equal protection guarantee of the Fourteenth Amendment prohibits Virginia from reserving exclusively to men the unique educational opportunities the military college in Virginia provides.
Parties who seek to defend gender-based government action must demonstrate an “exceedingly persuasive justification” for that action. The justification must be genuine, not hypothesized or invented post hoc in response to litigation.
Virginia Military Institute is the only single-sex school among Virginia’s public institutions of higher learning. VMI’s goal is to train men for leadership in civilian life and in military service. The goal is not inherently unsuitable to women. Students are constantly exposed to an extreme form of discipline and intensity that are tormenting and punishing. A female high-school student seeking admission to VMI filed a complaint and the United States sued alleging that VMI’s exclusively male admission policy violated equal protection.
Does Virginia’s exclusion of women from educational opportunities provided by military college violate the equal protection?
Yes, Virginia’s exclusion of women from educational opportunities provided by military college violates the equal protection guaranteed by the Constitution because Virginia has not provided any persuasive evidence in the record that VMI’s male-only admission policy is in furtherance of a state policy of diversity. Moreover, the remedial plan presented by Virginia – establishing a military college only for women – does not equal VMI and thus cannot justify the exclusion of women from VMI.
Virginia has an important state interest in providing effective college education for its citizens. That single-sex instruction is an approach substantially related to that interest should be evident enough from the long and continuing history in this country of men’s and women’s colleges. But besides its single-sex institution, VMI is distinct from other colleges in employing a distinctive educational method. A State’s decision to maintain one school that provides the unique method is substantially related to its goal of good education.
It is not the exclusion of women that violates the equal protection, but the maintenance of an all-men school without providing any institution for women. Hence, the remedy need not require either the admission of women to VMI or the creation of a VMI clone for women. Instead, a demonstration by Virginia that its interest in educating men in a single-sex environment is matched by its interest in educating women in a single-sex institution. Virginia, however, has failed to demonstrate such and VWIL fails as a remedy.
While it is not disputed that diversity among public educational institutions can serve the public good, Virginia has not shown that VMI was established with a view to diversifying, by its exclusion of women, educational opportunities within the State. When the State established VMI, many educational opportunities for men and women were scarcely contemplated. It is difficult to extract from the State’s past effort any state policy to advance diverse educational options. Moreover, VMI argues that establishing VWIL, a military college only for female students, would serve the same purpose as VMI and offer the comparable benefits to women. However, in many respects other than military training, VWIL does not qualify as VMI’s equal. VWIL’s student body, faculty, course offerings and facilities hardly match VMI’s. The former’s prestige, alumni network and funding are all insufficient to offer women the same benefits as men attending VMI.