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Judge Strikes School's Skirts-And-Pants Code

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By William Vogeler, Esq. on April 10, 2019 6:00 AM

Judge Malcolm Howard was definitely not trying to make a fashion statement.

But in Peltier v. Charter Day School, he had to make a statement about the dress code at a school for students from kindergarten through eighth grade. The charter school required girls to wear skirts and boys to wear pants. The judge said that violated the Equal Protection Clause. He didn't say dress codes have to be the same for boys and girls; however, this was only about pants.

A Pants Suit

The case started when three guardians sued on behalf of three girls, who were students at the Charter Day School in Leland. They argued the pants ban restricted the girls' physical activity and distracted them from learning. The American Civil Liberties Union pressed the case, saying that requiring girls to wear skirts instead of pants was unconstitutional. The ACLU said the policy was "outdated and discriminatory."

"This policy reflected antiquated gender stereotypes, intentionally sending the message that girls are not equal to boys," the organization said in a press release.

That's not what the judge said, but the bottom line was the same: the policy violated the Fourteenth Amendment. "It is not the holding of this court that dress, grooming and uniform policies cannot have differences for boys and girls," Howard said. The school couldn't show that the uniform policy imposes "comparable burdens" on boys and girls, he said.

Traditional Values

The school had argued that uniforms were part of a "traditional-values approach" that is meant to teach discipline and order. Skirts, they said, instill "mutual respect between boys and girls."  Howard said those may be legitimate goals, but the school didn't explain how the skirts requirement furthered those goals. The plaintiffs, on the other hand, showed that the girls were burdened by skirts, including:

  • being unable to play freely during recess
  • sitting in an uncomfortable manner in class
  • being subject to cold temperatures on their legs

"Yes, the boys at the school must conform to a uniform policy as well," the judge said. But they don't have to deal with the challenges of wearing skirts, he said.

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