429 U.S. 190 (1976), argued 5 Oct. 1976, decided 20 Dec. 1976 by vote of 7 to 2; Brennan for the Court, Blackmun, Powell, Stevens, and Stewart (as to result) concurring, Burger and Rehnquist in dissent. The Court announced for the first time that sex-based classifications were subjected to stricter scrutiny under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment than was provided by the rational basis or “ordinary scrutiny” test. As stated by Justice William J. Brennan, the constitutional standard that would have to be met for a statute classifying by gender is that it “must serve important governmental objectives and must be substantially related to those objectives” (p. 197). This standard appeared to be somewhat less rigorous than the strict scrutiny test applied to “suspect” classifications such as race. Brennan claimed that (although the Court had never before mentioned it) this was the test that had applied to gender discrimination ever since Reed v. Reed (1971). (The period 1971–1976 coincided with a nearly successful effort at the congressional and state level to add an Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution.)
The Oklahoma law at issue in Craig allowed females aged 18–20 to purchase beer of 3.2% alcohol. Males could not purchase beer until age 21. The law was challenged by two underage men, Mark Walker and Curtis Craig, joined by a female beer vendor, Carolyn Whitener. By the time the case was argued at the Supreme Court, both men had turned 21, so the woman's standing proved decisive.
Oklahoma defended the statute as a prophylactic against drunk driving, offering statistics showing that arrests of males 18–20 out-numbered those of females of similar age by a factor of ten for “drunk” driving (2 percent vs‥18 percent), by a factor of eighteen for “driving under the influence,” and by a factor of ten for public drunkenness.
Brennan ruled for the Court that, while enhancing traffic safety did demonstrate an important government interest, the statistical evidence offered by Oklahoma did not meet the other half of the test: the gender line drawn by the state did not “substantially” further the government's goal. Also, explaining that the Twenty-first Amendment did not alter otherwise applicable equal protection standards, he rejected the state's argument that the extra legislative power secured by that amendment should cause this statute to be sustained.
Justice Harry Blackmun concurred in the result and in all of the opinion except the discussion of the Twenty-first Amendment. Justice Lewis Powell concurred but stated that he would have preferred a rule that said gender classifications must bear a “fair and substantial relation” to the object of legislation. Justice John Paul Stevens concurred but suggested that rather than three differing degrees of equal protection scrutiny the Court should apply the rule that states must govern impartially. For him the requirement of impartiality entailed measuring the importance of the government interest, the degree to which any classification furthers that interest, and the degree of obnoxiousness of the classification. While this law did further traffic safety somewhat, and while that was an important goal, he felt that the offensiveness of a gender-based law outweighed these two considerations here.