ANNAPOLIS -- An Anne Arundel County judge has overturned a landmark Annapolis law denying city liquor licenses to private clubs whose membership bylaws discriminate on the basis of race, gender or ethnic background.
An Annapolis lawmaker who two years ago helped usher the bill into law amid controversy decried the decision as a setback for civil rights in Maryland's capital.
The ruling yesterday by Circuit Judge James C. Cawood Jr. was in response to a challenge to the law from an all-male Annapolis Elks lodge, whose liquor license expires at the end of this month. Under the law, Lodge 622 of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks would not have been allowed to renew its license.
In a 10-page written opinion released yesterday, Judge Cawood wrote: "However vital and laudatory the measure may be, it has nothing to do with the consumption of alcohol except that it would deprive the Elks of their license." The judge agreed with lawyers for the Elks lodge who argued that the state's "public accommodations law" exempts private clubs from government regulation.
Ronald G. Dawson, lawyer for the Elks, also argued at a hearing last week that the lodge's membership criteria have nothing to do with the operation of its cocktail lounge, which is open to female guests and members of the club's women's auxiliary.
An official from the American Civil Liberties Union, which supported passage of the law, disputed that logic. "The fallacy in that argument is a woman can't walk in and order a drink on the same basis as a man. Women have to be friends of a member to get in," said Susan Goering, legal director of the Maryland affiliate of the ACLU. She said she hoped an appeals court would rule the lodge must abide by state law forbidding discrimination in public accommodations.
"Just because a group calls itself a private club doesn't mean they are one," she said. "Annapolis has a compelling governmental interest to make sure organizations that are effectively public accommodations act like public accommodations."
Annapolis Alderman Carl O.Snowden, sponsor of the original bill, said he would urge his colleagues on the city council to pursue an appeal.
"Whenever there is a struggle to eradicate racism and bigotry, it will always be an ongoing struggle," Mr. Snowden said.
Annapolis City Attorney Jonathan A. Hodgson said he was surprised by the ruling.
If the city counsel directs him to pursue an appeal, he added, he TC will renew his arguments that the state law does not grant clubs permission to discriminate in its membership policies and that the city has the power to regulate licensed establishments.
Mr. Hodgson said the city will renew the lodge's liquor license.
At the Elks club yesterday, Russell O. "Rusty" Sears, a county firefighter who serves as exalted ruler of the local lodge, seemed reluctant to answer questions about the effect of the ruling on the organization.
"We're happy and that's it and don't you dare print another word," he told a reporter.