ATLANTA -- In a setback for women's rights advocates, a federal judge said in a ruling made public yesterday that the Virginia Military Institute can continue its men-only admissions policy because the state-supported school "marches to the beat of a different drummer."
U.S. District Judge Jackson Kiser rejected arguments by the U.S. Department of Justice that the exclusion of women at a public college receiving state and federal funding violates the Civil Rights Act and the 14th Amendment's equal protection clause.
The department had filed suit last year on behalf of a female Virginia high school student who was refused admission to VMI. The institute's ban against women has been in effect since the school opened in 1839.
The ruling, filed Friday in Danville, Va., and released in Roanoke yesterday, followed nearly three months of courtroom battles centering on the biological and sociological differences between men and women.
Judge Kiser asserted that VMI's 152-year-old policy was constitutional, provided a needed diversity in education and that changing the policy would alter the school's mission.
The 1,300-cadet school, located in Lexington, Va., "has set its eye on the citizen-soldier and never veered from the path it has chosen to meet that goal," the judge said.
"VMI truly marches to the beat of a different drummer and I will permit it to continue to do so."
Judge Kiser's ruling means that VMI will remain one of only two all-male state-supported colleges in the nation. The other is the Citadel in Charleston, S.C.
At the Department of Justice, spokeswoman Amy Casner said the department would have no comment until lawyers studied the ruling.
In a statement, Maj. Gen. John W. Knapp, superintendent of VMI, said he was "delighted" with the judge's decision, adding, "We ++ look forward to continuing our exemplary service to the nation and to the Commonwealth."
And Lt. Gen. Claudius E. Watts III, president of the Citadel, said that "a very dark cloud has been lifted from VMI and the Citadel." He said he hoped the VMI ruling would discourage any lawsuit against the Citadel.
But Patricia Ireland, executive vice president of the National Organization for Women, called the ruling "a slap in the face" for the thousands of women veterans of the Persian Gulf war, adding that it sends a message that "women aren't full citizens and can't be full soldiers."
During the non-jury trial, held April 4-11, government attorneys argued that, since 1976, U.S. service academies have been admitting women who have proven themselves in the military, most notably during the Persian Gulf War.
VMI attorneys called witnesses who testified that admissions would probably drop if women were admitted.
Judge Kiser agreed that the school deserved protection from policy changes.
He declared that letting women in "would tend to impair the esprit de corps and the egalitarian atmosphere which are critical elements of the VMI experience."
"In fact," the judge said, "it would be impossible for a female to participate in the VMI experience. Even if the female could physically and psychologically undergo the rigors of the life of a male cadet, her introduction into the process would change it."
VMI officials said the state contributes $9 million a year to the school, about a third of its budget.