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Craig v. Boren


CRAIG V. BOREN, 429 U.S. 190 (1976), established the constitutional test for laws that discriminate on account of gender. In 1958, Oklahoma enacted a law allowing women to purchase beer containing 3.2 percent alcohol at age eighteen, while men could not do so until they reached twenty-one years of age. In 1972 Craig, a man under twenty-one years of age, and Whitener, a woman operating a bar, challenged the law in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma, arguing that it constituted "invidious discrimination against males eighteen to twenty years of age," thus violating the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The District Court upheld Oklahoma's law, triggering a Supreme Court appeal.

Previously, gender distinctions were judged by a "rational basis test," which asked whether legislative bodies had reason to believe that sex discrimination in certain instances served the public interest. But in Reed v. Reed (1971), the Court broke with a century-long trend in Fourteenth Amendment interpretation, invalidating a Utah law that discriminated on account of sex, because it found that "rational basis" was not enough to sustain the discrimination. The Reed opinion appeared to signal a shift toward the application of the "strict scrutiny" test for racial classifications to gender classifications. Frontiero v. Richardson (1973) revisited the issues presented by Reed v. Reed, but did not clarify whether "strict scrutiny" would apply to gender discriminations. In Craig v. Boren the Court finally established which test would apply in gender classifications.

Oklahoma argued that the statute improved public safety, pointing to statistical evidence showing that men were slightly more likely to commit alcohol-related traffic offenses than women. The District Court, citing Reed v. Reed, had found that Oklahoma's statistical evidence endorsed the gender distinction, supporting the statutory goal of increased traffic safety. The Supreme Court disagreed, finding that evidence to be exceptionally thin, and offered "only a weak answer to the equal protection question presented here." Justice William Brennan, writing for the 7 to 2 Court majority, emphasized that evidence used to defend discriminations would have to be compelling. Striking down Oklahoma's statute, Brennan stated that the "relationship between gender and traffic safety becomes far too tenuous to satisfy Reed v. Reed's requirement that the gender-based difference be substantially related to achievement of the statutory objective." Craig v. Boren established that the Court would apply neither "rational basis" nor "strict scrutiny" tests, relying instead on "heightened" or "intermediate" scrutiny of gender-based discriminations.

R. VolneyRiser

See alsoDiscrimination: Sex .

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