The Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment guarantees equal treatment under the law to all persons. For individuals and settings not covered by the Age Discrimination in Employment Act and the Age Discrimination Act, the general applicability of the Equal Protection Clause provides a federal basis for challenging age-based discrimination. As the Supreme Court explained in Massachusetts Board of Retirement v. Murgia (1976), courts apply the rational basis test in age claims brought under the Equal Protection Clause, because age is not a suspect classification, and there is no fundamental interest in governmental employment or federal fundamental right of participation in educational programs. Applying Murgia a year later, a federal trial court upheld Pennsylvania State University’s policy of mandatory retirement at 65 for faculty and staff under the rational basis standard, as it allowed the institution to plan, change, and employ new personnel with newer skills.
Under the rational basis test, officials at colleges and universities must show only that their actions reasonably further legitimate state objectives or interests. However, as a federal trial court reminded a rejected 65-year-old applicant to the University of Maine School of Law, the judiciary will not engage in rational basis review unless the a plaintiff first establishes evidence of discriminatory intent on the part of a defendant university.
The Fifth Circuit reviewed a public university’s housing policy against an equal protection claim against age discrimination. The institution required student on-campus residence but exempted all undergraduates who were 23 years of age or older. The court found that there was no rational basis for the arbitrary distinction in treatment between students ages 21 and 22 and those 23 and above; the case did not involve a claim on behalf of anyone under the age of 21. Accordingly, the court struck the housing policy down as unconstitutional. Earlier, female students at the same public university in Louisiana successfully challenged the housing policy requiring unmarried female students who were under the age of 21 and not living with close relatives to live in campus residence halls. A federal trial court determined that the policy, which was grounded solely on the reason of seeking to meet financial obligations in connection with the construction of dormitories, violated the equal protection clause.