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Published: Friday, 4/1/2005

Equal rights' 'slam dunk'

THE U.S. Supreme Court has emphatically ruled that sex discrimination in any form is legally unacceptable. That's the message from a recent ruling on an Alabama case where a high school basketball coach charged that he was fired after he complained that the school was violating Title IX because the girls' team had to endure conditions markedly inferior to boys.

Thanks to a narrow 5-4 ruling and a vigorous opinion written by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, Roderick Jackson now will get a chance to return to the U.S. District Court that first dismissed his lawsuit to argue that his firing was in fact illegal retaliation based on his complaint.

He will also seek compensatory damages and an injunction mandating that the Birmingham, Ala., schools comply with Title IX, the portion of the federal law that prohibits sexual discrimination in educational institutions.

Title IX advocates are relishing the victory, one that should put an end to complaints that the law is too burdensome. Those who are disappointed can argue that the court's divided decision isn't exactly a resounding message. Nevertheless, the majority ruling strongly suggests schools and colleges think twice before they consider targeting for revenge anybody who files sex discrimination complaints under the 1972 law that promotes and protects women's athletics.

Title IX bars any educational program that receives federal funds from discriminating on the basis of sex. Victims of discrimination can sue, and although the government has interpreted Title IX to cover claims of revenge, until now third parties did not have the clear protection that the Supreme Court ruling provides.

Justice O'Connor, who was the swing vote, delivered a "slam dunk" for equal opportunity. She wrote in her majority opinion that revenge against someone who complains about sex discrimination is "another form of intentional sex discrimination." She added, "The statue is broadly worded: It does not require that the victim of the retaliation must also be the victim of the discrimination that is the subject of the original complaint."

As might have been predicted, Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, David Souter, and John Paul Stevens agreed. The dissenters were Clarence Thomas, Anthony Kennedy, Antonin Scalia, and Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist.

Agree or disagree, Justice O'Connor's sweeping opinion made this much clear: To seek revenge against someone who complains about discrimination is discrimination itself.

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