The Supreme Court on Wednesday said the all-male Virginia Military Institute must admit women or give up its state funding, ruling 7-1 that a separate program offered to women does not provide an equal education.
"Women seeking and fit for a VMI-quality education cannot be offered anything less, under the state's obligation to afford them genuinely equal protection," Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote for the court.The ruling also will affect the Citadel, South Carolina's state military school, which has a similar all-male policy and a similar alternative program for women.
The Citadel was ordered by a federal court last year to admit a woman, Shannon Faulkner, but after less than a week in the school's cadet corps, she dropped out, citing stress and isolation.
The state-supported VMI's all-male policy violates women's constitutional right to equal pro-tec-tion, the high court said.
"Neither the goal of producing citizen-soldiers nor VMI's implementing methodology is inherently unsuitable to women," Ginsburg wrote.
"There is no reason to believe that the admission of women capable of all the activities required of VMI cadets would destroy the institute rather than enhance its capacity to serve the more perfect union," she said.
Justice Antonin Scalia, the lone dissenter, wrote, "Today the court shuts down an institution that has served the people of the commonwealth of Virginia with pride and distinction for over a century and a half."I do not think any of us, women included, will be better off for its destruction," he said.
"It's not surprising," Gov. George Allen of Virginia said on his monthly radio show. "We will comply with the opinion."
"It's a great tragedy," said Robert Patterson, a VMI graduate and one of the attorneys who represented VMI.
Even though it ruled against VMI's all-male tradition, the court turned down the Clinton administration's bid for a ruling that sex-discrimination cases must be judged by the same strict legal standard used in race-bias cases.
The court kept the mid-level standard it has used in sex-dis-crimination cases since the mid-1970s. Government can treat the sexes differently if such treatment is substantially related to an important objective, the court said.
VMI, in Lexington, Va., and the Citadel in Charleston, S.C., are the nation's only all-male, state-supported military colleges.
Confederate military leader Stonewall Jackson once taught at VMI, where the training emphasizes physical rigor, mental stress, absence of privacy and minute regulation of behavior. First-year students are called rats and are required to shave their heads.
The federal government sued VMI and Virginia in 1990, contending the all-male policy in effect since the school's founding in 1839 unlawfully discriminates against women.
The government relied partly on a 1982 Supreme Court ruling, authored by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, that said Mississippi could not bar men from a state-supported nursing school.
Lawyers for VMI and Virginia argued that admitting women would destroy VMI's harsh training program. They said some men and women benefit from single-sex education and that a ruling against VMI could doom government aid to private, single-sex schools.
A federal judge approved Virginia's plan to keep women out of VMI by creating a separate program for them at Mary Baldwin College, a private women's school in Staunton, Va. The program emphasizes leadership training instead of VMI's "rat line" that is similar to a military boot camp.
The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the plan on the ground that opportunities offered to the two sexes should be "substantively comparable" but need not be the same.
Wednesday, the Supreme Court reversed that ruling.
The separate women's program, the Virginia Institute for Leadership, is "significantly unequal" and a "pale shadow" of VMI, Ginsburg wrote.