A man who lost his coaching job after complaining that his girls' high school basketball team was being treated like second-class citizens may claim the protections of a 1972 gender-bias law to get his job back.
Coach Roderick Jackson sued the Birmingham, Ala., Board of Education, saying the school district had violated Title IX in taking retaliatory action against him. A federal judge and federal appeals court panel threw out the suit.
But Tuesday the US Supreme Court reinstated his lawsuit, saying his firing amounts to a form of gender discrimination under Title IX - even though Coach Jackson is a man and was not a member of the girls' team.
"Retaliation against a person because that person has complained of sex discrimination is another form of intentional sex discrimination," writes Justice Sandra Day O'Connor for the majority.
Title IX is the groundbreaking civil rights law passed 33 years ago to ensure that girls and women are allowed to fully participate in government-funded educational programs, including school sports.
Tuesday's 5-to-4 ruling is important because it will make it easier to fight gender bias by empowering coaches, friends, and others (male and female) familiar with ongoing discrimination to file suit, if they encounter retaliation.
In adopting a broad reading of Title IX the high court is putting school districts nationwide on notice that gender discrimination litigation is not restricted to only direct victims of sex-based bias.
At the center of the case was whether the alleged retaliation experienced by a male coach for complaining about unequal treatment of his female athletes was itself a form of gender bias. Women's-rights advocates argued that it was, and a majority of justices agreed.
"The statute 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," Justice O'Connor writes.
With Title IX, Congress intended to create an effective means of fighting discrimination, O'Connor says. "Teachers and coaches such as Jackson are often in the best position to vindicate the rights of their students because they are better able to identify discrimination and bring it to the attention of administrators," she writes in an opinion joined by the court's liberal wing.
In a dissent, Justice Clarence Thomas says that nothing in the text of Title IX authorizes such a broad reading. The law forbids discrimination, not retaliation based on complaints about discrimination, he says. "Jackson complains that he suffered reprisal because he complained about sex discrimination, not that the sex discrimination underlying his complaint occurred," Justice Thomas writes. "Retaliation cannot be said to be discrimination on the basis of anyone's sex, because a retaliation claim may succeed where no sex discrimination ever took place."
Thomas adds, "The sex-based topic of the complaint cannot overcome the fact that the retaliation is not based on anyone's sex, much less the complainer's sex." His dissent was joined by Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy.
Jackson teaches physical education at Ensley High School in Birmingham, and until 2001 he also coached girls basketball. He was removed from the coaching post after complaining that the girls' team was not receiving equal funding, and equal access to sports facilities and equipment.
Although he lost his coaching job, he continued to work as a teacher at the high school. Jackson sued the school board to get his coaching job back with back pay. He has since been rehired as a coach, but back pay and lawyer fees are still pending.