WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court strengthened enforcement Tuesday of the landmark Title IX law that bars sex discrimination in schools and colleges, ruling that teachers and coaches may challenge schools for giving girls second-class treatment without fear of being punished.
In a 5-4 ruling, the high court said the law not only protected girls and women who might be victims of discrimination, but also those who sought to enforce its guarantee of equal treatment.
Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said it was crucial that teachers and coaches spoke up when they saw evidence that women's or girls' teams have smaller budgets and poorer facilities. And if these employees are not protected from retaliation when they complain, "Title IX's enforcement scheme would unravel," she said.
"Individuals who witness discrimination would likely not report it, indifference claims would be short-circuited, and the underlying discrimination would go unremedied," said O'Connor, the first woman to serve on the high court.
The decision revived a lawsuit brought by Roderick Jackson, a high school teacher and girls' basketball coach from Birmingham, Ala. He said he was fired as the coach four years ago after he complained that his athletes were forced to practice in an old gym with poorer facilities and locker rooms than those used by boys.
When Jackson sued, a federal judge and the U.S. Court of Appeals in Atlanta dismissed his claim. The lower courts said Title IX protected discrimination victims, but not others who, at most, witnessed discrimination.
The justices disagreed in Jackson vs. Birmingham Board of Education. Since the 1960s, civil rights laws have been interpreted broadly to protect not only victims of discrimination, but also those who seek to enforce the law, O'Connor said.
She sided with liberal Justices John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer.
"This decision is a slam dunk victory for everyone who cares about equal opportunity," said Marcia Greenberger, co-president of the National Women's Law Center, which brought Jackson's case to the high court. "The court has confirmed that people cannot be punished for standing up for their rights."
Tuesday's ruling does not necessarily mean Jackson will win his suit. It means he is entitled to try to prove in court that the school stripped his duties "because he complained of sex discrimination," O'Connor said.
The Title IX law of 1972 is credited with having touched off a revolution in women's sports. The law barred schools and colleges that received federal funds from discriminating in any area "on the basis of sex," but had its greatest effect on athletics.
When Congress wrote the law, it said schools and colleges could lose their federal funds if they refused to comply. But that remedy has gone unused.
Instead, the Supreme Court, in a still-controversial decision, said in 1979 that Congress also intended that victims of discrimination could sue schools or colleges in federal court.
The dispute over who can sue and under what circumstances has split the justices often over the past two decades. In one 5-4 ruling, the court said a high school girl who was subjected to sexual advances by a male teacher could not sue the school because she did not report it to school officials. In another 5-4 ruling, the court said a girl who was sexually harassed by a boy could sue because the school had done nothing in response to her mother's complaints.
In Tuesday's opinion, O'Connor said it was too late to reconsider the right-to-sue doctrine under Title IX. But the dissenters, led by Justice Clarence Thomas, said the court should not go further to allow more lawsuits under Title IX.
"Jackson does not claim that his own sex played any role, let alone a decisive or predominant one, in the decision to relieve him of his position," Thomas wrote. "By crafting its own additional enforcement mechanism, the majority returns this court to the days in which it created remedies out of whole cloth to effectuate its vision of congressional purpose. In doing so, [it] substitutes its policy judgments for the bargains struck by Congress."
Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia and Anthony M. Kennedy joined Thomas' dissent.