Elks Trouble in Annapolis

September 14, 1991

Having exhausted other avenues, the Annapolis chapter of the Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elks is now prepared to challenge in court a newly-minted Annapolis law denying liquor licenses to private clubs with discriminatory bylaws. The suit asserts the city has stepped outside its authority in making liquor laws more restrictive than the state requires and that the law is unconstitutional because it excludes religious groups.

This action seems predicated less on true conviction than pressing practicalities. The all-male group, albeit reluctantly, is willing to change its bylaws to admit women. In fact, it petitioned its national leadership for permission to do so. When that failed, the lodge considered selling its Rowe Boulevard building and moving to the county, but couldn't find a buyer. Thus, by default the matter is headed for Anne Arundel County Circuit Court.

Neither side is eager to square off before a judge and both still want a compromise. We hope this does not include the city backing away from the statute. Tolerance is not something that can be legislated. But there is nothing wrong with using the law as a wedge to effect desirable social change.

In 1984, the Supreme Court ruled that the U.S. Jaycees could not exclude women from full membership. In that case, Justice William J. Brennan Jr. wrote that freedom of association might justifiably be infringed upon "by regulations adopted to serve compelling state interests." Already, the Annapolis law has met with some success. The previously all-male, all-white Annapolis Yacht Club, for example, last year opened its doors to the late Dr. Aris T. Allen.

That the new law puts the Annapolis lodge in a bind is unfortunate, but it should not be cast aside simply because it makes life difficult for the city's largest private club. For all its charity work, the club is a civic group with a long history of exclusionary policies. Admitting women, say some members, would destroy the lodge's tradition of brotherhood. The group claims blacks are welcome, but have shown no interest. Yet Annapolis has a separate, majority-black chapter.

The struggle between tradition and universal access is an old one that is rightly shaped by progressive legislation. What the Elks are confronted with is a choice of opening its doors to women or closing its liquor operation. The group presses its case by stressing that its liquor sales bankroll much of its charity work. Yet city officials would be setting the worst of examples by changing the law to accommodate a single, albeit powerful, social group. The lodge's real fight is not with the city of Annapolis, but with the national organization, which insists on clinging to old biases.

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