Liquor rule to curb bias is upheld

January 13, 1994|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,Staff Writer

The Maryland Court of Appeals upheld yesterday an Annapolis ordinance prohibiting private clubs that discriminate from holding liquor licenses, a ruling praised by civil rights advocates and criticized by members of the targeted club.

In a unanimous decision, the court ruled that the City Council acted within its authority in 1990 when it passed a law prohibiting clubs with city liquor licenses from excluding members "on the basis of race, sex, religion, physical handicap or national origin."

"The authority over alcoholic beverage licenses granted by the General Assembly to the City of Annapolis . . . is very broad," Judge John C. Eldridge wrote.

The decision reversed a 1992 Anne Arundel Circuit Court decision that had invalidated the city law and allowed the Annapolis Elks, Lodge No. 622, to keep its liquor license.

Vernon "Joe" Dorr, the exalted ruler of the lodge, said yesterday's ruling probably will speed lodge members' plans to move from the building on Rowe Boulevard to quarters outside the city.

"We've been looking at several properties," he said.

Civil rights advocates called the appellate court decision a milestone in efforts to open doors to minorities and women.

"This is the most important legal achievement of my political career," said Annapolis Alderman Carl O. Snowden, a longtime civil rights activist who sponsored the legislation.

Annapolis is the only city in Maryland with such a law, but the ruling could prompt other subdivisions to pass similar laws, said Stuart Comstock-Gay, head of the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

"It might open the door, now that this issue has been resolved," he said.

The City Council adopted the law 5-4 on April 9, 1990. The Elks Lodge, which prohibits women in its by-laws and has not had a black member in its 90-year history, sued to block the law's enforcement.

Circuit Judge James C. Cawood, Jr., ruled April 16, 1992, that the state's public accommodations law, which prohibits discrimination in public places, precludes local subdivisions from banning it in private clubs based on liquor license regulations.

Soon after, the City Council voted not to appeal the decision, but Mr. Snowden and others formed the Coalition for Open Doors, an umbrella group of civil rights and women's groups, to file the appeal that led to yesterday's ruling.

In its 29-page opinion, the state's highest court ruled in the coalition's favor.

"There may be many women who desire to use the alcoholic beverage service of the Annapolis Lodge, who are not married to, or dependents of, or regular guests of existing members, who are not eligible for the "Women's Auxiliary," but who would be eligible for membership if the Annapolis Lodge did not discriminate on the basis of gender," Judge Eldridge wrote.

Carol Gerson, an Annapolis businesswoman who helped form the coalition and joined in the appeal after she was denied membership in the lodge, said it is behind the closed doors of such clubs that business contacts are made and deals are struck.

"It's not only getting a contract, but getting your name around, getting to know the people who are making the important decisions," said Ms. Gerson, who runs a graphic design and public relations firm.

Robert Dietz, attorney for the Annapolis lodge, said yesterday the group has several options, including appealing to federal court, dropping its liquor license, moving from the city or petitioning the National Elks Lodge to amend its rules to allow for female members.

"It certainly won't be the end of the organization," he said.

He said the male-only policy is binding on each of the Elks' 3,300 subordinate lodges and that those lodges must vote to change that rule.

The Annapolis lodge petitioned the national organization two years ago to allow female members, but the request was denied, Mr. Dietz said.

Annapolis Mayor Alfred A. Hopkins said yesterday that he hopes the national organization will reconsider allowing women in light of the appeals court ruling. If they refuse to change the rules, he said he sees no way the city would amend the law to keep the Elks from moving.

"I think the national organization should reconsider. It's only fair," he said. "It's a fair law."

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