A federal appeals court has struck down an Indiana school district’s policy requiring short hair for boys on the basketball team, holding that the lack of a similar policy for girl basketball players resulted in illegal sex discrimination.

Greensburg Junior High School has a code of conduct for athletes which bars hairstyles that may obstruct vision or draw attention to the athletes, such as mohawks, dyed hair or having initials cut into the hair. The boys’ basketball coach, however, added a hair-length policy that required hair to be cut above “the ears, eyebrows and collar.”

A panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals of the 7th Circuit ruled 2-1, in Hayden v. Greensburg Community School Corporation, that the hair-length policy violated the boy plaintiff’s 14th Amendment right to equal protection of the law and Title IX’s prohibition against sex discrimination. The court based its decision on the fact that there was no comparable limit on the hair length of girl basketball players.

According to the court, “the hair-length policy applies only to male athletes, and there is no facially apparent reason why that should be so,” wrote Judge Ilana D. Rovner. “Girls playing interscholastic basketball have the same need as boys do to keep their hair out of their eyes, to subordinate their individuality to team unity, and to protect a positive image.”

Despite the court’s decision against the school district, the court noted that under modern sex-discrimination legal doctrine, the school district might have been able to justify the disparate treatment. To do so, however, it was up to the school district to show that the hair-length policy is just one component of a comprehensive grooming code that imposes comparable although not identical demands on both male and female athletes.

In summarizing it’s rationale for its decision, the court wrote that “what we have before us is a policy that draws an explicit distinction between male and female athletes and imposes a burden on male athletes alone, and a limited record that does not supply a legally sufficient justification for the sex-based classification.”

Although the court ruled in favor of the student who challenged the hair length policy, the 7th Circuit Court gave a clear indication that polices of this type can be upheld, as long as a school district makes an effort to craft policies that apply to both sexes or are based on a sufficient justification for a sex-based classification.