By Jonathan Stempel
(Reuters) - A federal appeals court on Wednesday blocked the Minnesota State High School League from enforcing a rule barring boys from joining their high schools' competitive dance teams.
The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the rule probably violated the equal protection clause of the Constitution's 14th Amendment, and a lower court judge erred in refusing to issue a preliminary injunction against its enforcement.
Wednesday's 3-0 decision ordering the injunction is a victory for Dmitri Moua and Zachary Greenwald, both 16-year-old juniors at high schools near Minneapolis, who sued last July after being barred from joining their schools' dance teams.
The league, an association of Minnesota high schools that oversees extracurricular activities and sports, argued that the girls-only rule ensured equal opportunity and addressed girls' historic underrepresentation in that state's high school sports.
Circuit Judge Michael Melloy, however, said the league lacked an "exceedingly persuasive" justification for the rule, and the boys had "more than a fair chance" of showing it violated their equal protection rights.
Melloy said boys and girls now participate almost equally in high school sports in Minnesota, and any negative public fallout from boys trying out for dance teams would be "slight." He also said the public interest weighed in favor of an injunction.
Kevin Beck, a lawyer for the league, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Moua and Greenwald also sued under Title IX, a federal law barring sex discrimination in education programs that receive federal funds. The appeals court did not rule on that claim.
Joshua Thompson, a lawyer from the Pacific Legal Foundation representing the boys, said roughly one-third of U.S. states offer competitive dance as a high school sport, but Minnesota was the last to restrict it to girls.
A similar restriction in South Dakota was repealed last year.
Wednesday's decision "enforces the Constitution's guarantee that people will be treated equally regardless of their sex, and the government can't discriminate without a very compelling reason," Thompson said in an interview.
The St. Paul, Minnesota-based appeals court returned the case to U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson in that city for further proceedings. Thompson hopes they will prove unnecessary.
"We certainly hope it will rescind the rule," he said, referring to the league.
(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; editing by Jonathan Oatis)