ANNAPOLIS -- Amid emotional charges of racism and sexism, the City Council decided last night not to challenge a recent court ruling that overturned a landmark 1990 ordinance denying liquor licenses to private clubs that discriminate.
The narrow vote sparked sharp exchanges between supporters and opponents of an appeal. Two of the council's three female members and both black members decried the 5-4 vote, which was taken in executive session and announced in public, as a setback for civil rights in Annapolis.
The ruling last month by Anne Arundel Circuit Court Judge James C. Cawood allows an all-male Elks lodge to continue serving alcohol at social functions.
Council members who voted against the appeal said they felt the city would not win.
As the city's black alderman denounced the vote, racial tensions that have flared in recent council decisions came out again.
In defending the decision, Mayor Alfred. A. Hopkins repeatedly said, "I am not a bigot." But Alderman Carl O. Snowden, who helped usher the bill into law amid controversy two years ago, said while he was not calling the mayor a bigot, he had suffered from racism in his life, and "if the shoe fits, wear it."
"I think bigotry has won a temporary victory tonight in our city," said Mr. Snowden, a Democrat who represents the 5th Ward.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which supported the law, is looking into an appeal, Mr. Snowden said.
A court challenge of the ruling also is supported by the Maryland Human Relations Commission, which offered to assist the city with legal aid and, if permitted by the court, as a party to an appeal.
In 1990, Annapolis became the first state jurisdiction to pass a law that denied liquor licenses to clubs whose bylaws discriminate on the basis of race, gender or ethnic background. Lodge 622 of the Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elks sued, arguing that the state's public accommodations law exempts private clubs from government regulation.
In his April 16 ruling, Judge Cawood agreed with lawyers for the Elks lodge, saying while the law might be "vital and laudatory," it had "nothing to do with the consumption of alcohol except that it would deprive the Elks of their license." The ruling allowed the 1,500-member chapter to renew its liquor license.
Alderman Ruth Gray, a Republican representing the 4th Ward, said the ordinance prompted the Annapolis Yacht Club to admit women and its first black member, the late Dr. Aris T. Allen.
"The Elks have been in existence for 92 years, and no black man could ever become a member of the Elks club," Mr. Snowden said. "Dr. Aris Allen could not become a member of the Elks Club."
Mayor Hopkins insisted the state public accommodations law should be challenged by the General Assembly, not the city.
"I'm asking that this not be judged the way it's going to be judged," he said. "I'm asking that this be understood."