Exclusion in Montgomery

October 06, 1990

Amy Schmidt Hamilton, a 27-year old Olney resident with a six-figure salary, says she's being locked out of full membership at Rockville's Manor Country Club because she's a woman. The attorney general's office supports her claim and wants to revoke Manor's preferential tax status.

We thought this issue had been resolved in 1986 when the legislature finally agreed to strip private clubs of tax breaks if they discriminate against women or minorities. Apparently, that law needs strengthening.

Manor Country Club, situated on prime Rockville real estate, is assessed at approximately one-tenth its market value. Together, Montgomery County's 14 clubs receive $70,000 in property tax waivers from the state.

Ms. Hamilton -- an associate member who has frequented Manor for 10 years -- says her rejection by the club's all-male governing body flew in the face of routine approvals for males desiring to move from associate to full membership. As proof, she points to 23 men who were upgraded to active membership between 1985 and 1989.

Her complaint comes amid a growing body of evidence that the 1986 law -- a compromise version passed over objections from country clubs and fraternal orders -- is inadequate. A recent study by the Human Relations Commission concludes that "a significant number of white male private clubs discriminate," barring women and other minorities from the deal-making and networking so important to business advancement.

That this kind of behavior should be supported by taxpayers -- many of whom would be unwelcome in the very portals they are unwittingly subsidizing -- is unconscionable.

The 1991 legislature ought to place "sunset" provisions on these tax grants for private clubs, perhaps limited to ten years with annual compliance reviews. The state might also take a cue from Anne Arundel County, where the threat of losing liquor licenses has magically opened the doors to some of the county's most exclusive clubs. Tolerance isn't something that can be legislated -- but taxpayers shouldn't be asked to underwrite discriminatory practices, either.

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