WASHINGTON -- Writing into the Constitution a new layer of protection for equality of the sexes, the Supreme Court yesterday ordered the Virginia Military Institute to open its cadet ranks to women, probably ending the institute's 157 years as a place only for men.
The 7-1 ruling is based on the Constitution's guarantee of legal equality, applying to any government-run institution or one that relies on public money.
It seems sure to apply to the only other single-sex military college operated by a state with state money, The Citadel in Charleston, S.C. Young women are applying even now to go to VMI or The Citadel, and some of them are now likely to become cadets.
Seven years after an anonymous Virginia woman was rebuffed in a bid to attend VMI, setting off the legal battle that ended yesterday, the court ruled that a state college or public school that is "unique" cannot constitutionally be reserved for just one sex.
It did so by spelling out a new, and tougher, constitutional "measuring rod" for judging discrimination based solely on sex. Attorney General Janet Reno said the court "overwhelmingly has given life to the promise in the Constitution that all of us deserve an equal shot at educational opportunity." The Justice Department has been challenging VMI's ban on women for six years.
VMI's superintendent, Maj. Gen. Josiah Bunting III, called the ruling a great disappointment. "The institute teaches respect for duly constituted authority," he said, "and we shall discharge our responsibilities under the court's order."
Although yesterday's ruling dealt directly only with equality in public higher education, it was sweeping in scope. It is likely to encourage lawsuits against differing treatments of the sexes in other government programs, including the military.
Some language in the ruling made it appear that it would not go so far as to nullify all single-sex education in public colleges or public schools, though some critics of the decision said they feared it would do exactly that.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a one-time women's rights lawyer who three years ago became the second woman to serve on the court, wrote the ruling that seemed to push the court closer to establishing an equal rights guarantee as part of the Constitution.
"The court today is making the Constitution's guarantee of equality real for women because it toughens significantly the standard of review" for sex bias, said Janet Gallagher, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Women's Rights Project, which Ginsburg had founded and led before she became a federal judge.
Critics also noticed the ruling's breadth.
"The Supreme Court effectually instituted the Equal Rights Amendment," said Robert L. Maginnis, a senior policy analyst at the Family Research Council. He noted that an equal rights amendment had failed to win ratification. "The Supreme Court bypassed the Constitution," he said.
The court said that all laws or government policies that treat the sexes differently, based solely on sex, are unconstitutional unless they have an "an exceedingly persuasive justification" -- a standard the court said could not be met by relying on assumptions or stereotypes about the capacities of men or women.
"Generalizations about 'the way women are,' estimates of what is appropriate for most women," Ginsburg said, "no longer justify denying opportunity to women whose talent and capacity place them outside the average description."
The VMI lawsuit, and a companion case in lower courts that challenges exclusion of women from The Citadel, symbolize a new debate over the status of women under the Constitution's guarantee of "equal protection of the laws." The court first applied that guarantee to women in 1971. But it never interpreted it as broadly as it did yesterday.
Confronting VMI's long tradition as a training school for future male leaders, Ginsburg said the Lexington, Va., institution had followed a "historic and constant plan -- a plan to afford a unique educational benefit only to males."
However much that "serves the state's sons, it makes no provision whatever for her daughters," she said. "That is not equal protection."
Rejecting Virginia's claims that it had not violated women's rights by keeping them out of VMI, and its argument that it should be allowed to set up a program for women somewhere else, the court ordered VMI to admit women.
A separate program for women, opening last fall at Mary Baldwin College, a private women's college in Staunton, "does not match the constitutional violation" in keeping them out of the unique program at VMI, the court ruled. "Women seeking and fit for a VMI-quality education cannot be offered anything less," it said.
Ginsburg conceded that most women might not want to attend VMI, which stresses sometimes harsh treatment of cadets, in an atmosphere of little privacy, with the aim of molding them into "citizen-soldiers."