A federal district court in Pennsylvania has issued a preliminary injunction to prevent the Line Mountain School District, a public school district located in the small town of Herndon, Pennsylvania, from prohibiting a female student from participating on the boys’ junior high wrestling team. The female student at the center of the case, identified by the court only as A.B., attends 7th grade at Lion Mountain Middle School, and has wrestled on co-ed wrestling teams since the third grade, practicing and competing against both boys and girls. When A.B. reached the 7th grade, she became too old to participate in the school district’s co-ed youth team, but was denied participation on the district’s junior high team due to her gender pursuant to a school district policy preventing female students from participating on boys’ varsity, junior varsity, or junior high athletic teams. A.B. filed a lawsuit against the school district, arguing that the district’s policy constitutes unlawful discrimination on the basis of sex in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the Equal Rights Amendment to the Pennsylvania Constitution.
The school district’s policy was put in place due to safety concerns stemming from the physiological differences between male and female athletes. The school district articulated three specific reasons for preventing girls from participating on the boys’ wrestling team: (1) girls are at a greater risk of injury due to the anatomical differences between males and females; (2) girls are at a greater risk of experiencing inappropriate sexual contact and harassment due to their anatomical differences; and (3) there are perceived emotional, psychological, and moral risks for girls wrestling boys.
In its opinion*, the court explained that in order to obtain a preliminary injunction in any case, the court must consider: (1) whether there’s a reasonable probability of the plaintiff’s success on the merits; (2) whether the plaintiff will be irreparably harmed by denying the injunction; (3) whether there will be greater harm to the defendant if the injunction is granted; and (4) whether granting the injunction is in the public interest.
In considering the probability of A.B.’s success on the merits in this case, the court began by explaining that a government defendant seeking to uphold a policy that classifies individuals on the basis of gender must demonstrate an “exceedingly persuasive justification” for the classification, and to survive this type of intermediate scrutiny, the “classification must be substantially related to an important governmental objective.” (Citations omitted). Therefore, the burden is on the school district to explain why its policy meets this standard. With regards to the three main justifications for the district’s policy as outlined above, the court found that though student safety was a substantial governmental interest, preventing girls from wrestling was not substantially related to that interest. The district failed to present any evidence that A.B.’s safety was at greater risk simply because she is a girl other than generalized physiological assumptions. In addition, the district could not sufficiently establish that girls are at a greater risk of sexual contact or harassment than boys in order to justify the policy. The district acknowledged that the sport of wrestling presents opportunities for inappropriate sexual contact regardless of the athlete’s sex, and could not offer any evidence of specific instances where this type of conduct had occurred. Finally, the district could not adequately articulate any alleged psychological or moral degradation stemming from girls wrestling boys. Though the district offered testimony that there is a “certain moral wrongness” for girls to wrestle with boys, the court found that this perception alone, though well-intentioned, does not rise to the level of an important government interest. As such, the court found that A.B. had demonstrated a likelihood of success on her claims.
In addition, the court found that without a temporary injunction, A.B. would suffer irreparable harm in her development as a wrestler, as there were no other available opportunities for her to practice and compete in this sport near her home. The district, on the other hand, presented no evidence as to any harm it might suffer should the temporary injunction be granted. Finally, the court determined that there was no public interest harmed by granting a temporary injunction. For these reasons, the court granted a temporary injunction, allowing A.B. to participate on the boys’ wrestling team for now. A full hearing on the merits to consider whether a permanent injunction should be granted may be scheduled at some future date.
* Opinion link via the National School Boards Association.