By Jonathan Stempel
(Reuters) - A divided federal appeals court on Monday said an Indiana school district's policy requiring that boys who want to play interscholastic basketball cut their hair short violated federal equal protection laws.
By a 2-1 vote, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a lower court ruling and ruled in favor of Patrick and Melissa Hayden, who had challenged a Greensburg, Indiana, school policy that restricted how their son and other boys wear their hair but did not similarly restrict girls.
Circuit Judge Ilana Rovner wrote that there was "no rational, let alone exceedingly persuasive" reason to treat boys and girls differently, even though schools had "substantial leeway" in light of their pedagogical and caretaking roles to establish grooming codes generally.
The case arose after the Haydens' son, identified in court papers as A.H. and now 17, was removed in the fall of 2010 from his junior high basketball team after refusing to cut his hair above the ears, eyebrows and collar.
That policy had been established by high school boys varsity basketball coach Stacy Meyer, who is male, to promote team unity and project a "clean cut" image. Boys' baseball teams had a similar policy, while boys' football and track teams did not.
But no girls' teams were subject to a hair length policy, and Rovner said the difference violated A.H.'s constitutional right to equal protection, as well as Title IX restrictions against discrimination in education.
"Coach Meyer's policy prohibits far more than an Age-of-Aquarius, Tiny-Tim, hair-crawling-past-the-shoulders sort of hair style - it compels all male basketball players to wear genuinely short hair," Rovner wrote.
"In 2014," she added, "it is not obvious that any and all hair worn over the ears, collar, or eyebrows would be out of the mainstream among males in the Greensburg community at large, among the student body, or among school athletes. (Even one or two men on this court might find themselves in trouble with Coach Meyer for hair over the ears.)"
Circuit Judge Frank Easterbrook joined Rovner's decision.
In dissent, Circuit Judge Daniel Manion said there was no fundamental right to choose one's hair length, and that A.H. failed to prove that Greensburg violated his rights.
Monday's decision reversed a March 2013 ruling by Chief Judge Richard Young of the U.S. District Court in Indianapolis, and returned the case to that court to determine relief, including possible damages.
The 7th Circuit upheld Young's finding that A.H.'s substantive due process rights were not violated.
Tom Wheeler, a lawyer for the school district, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The office of Greensburg school Superintendent Tom Hunter referred a caller to Wheeler.
Ronald Frazier, a lawyer for the Haydens, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The Haydens could not immediately be reached.
Greensburg is about 50 miles southeast of Indianapolis. A.H. is now attending high school in Ossian, Indiana, about 120 miles north of Greensburg, but may return to his former district, Rovner wrote.
The case is Hayden et al v. Greensburg Community School Corp et al, 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 13-1757.
(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Howard Goller and Dan Grebler)