Milestone for Fairness

January 14, 1994

If the Annapolis Elks, Lodge No. 622, want to continue closing their doors to everyone who is not a white male, they are perfectly free to do so. The landmark anti-discrimination ruling handed down this week by the Maryland Court of Appeals does not change that.

What has changed is the city of Annapolis' freedom to say, "Discrimination is wrong, and we will not tacitly support it by granting privileges to private clubs and organizations that persist in practicing it."

The privilege in question is a city liquor license. In 1990, the Annapolis City Council passed a precedent-setting law prohibiting clubs with city liquor licenses from excluding members on the basis of race, sex, religion, physical handicap or national origin. It was a good, fair law, but the Elks sued and won in a 1992 Anne Arundel Circuit Court decision. The City Council decided not to appeal, but civil rights groups, led by Annapolis Alderman Carl O. Snowden, felt this was too important an issue to let drop.

They were right. As the Court of Appeals recognized, jurisdictions have a moral obligation neither to subsidize nor sanction organizations that discriminate. While the argument can be made that not every club that excludes does so out of prejudice -- we doubt, for instance, that members of the Linthicum Woman's Club hate men -- discrimination is dangerous and unfair. Private groups have a right to close their doors, but the government should have a right to say that, as an instrument of all the people, it will not abet these actions.

The ramifications of the appellate court ruling go beyond the city of Annapolis. The Annapolis Elks are not alone; Maryland remains spattered with private clubs that discriminate while enjoying the benefit of public privileges such as liquor licenses. The 1990 Annapolis law remains the only one of its kind in Maryland, probably because everyone was waiting to see how it would fare in court. Now that it has been vindicated, the way is clear for other governments to pass similar legislation.

In the meantime, the Elks say they have several options, including dropping their liquor license, appealing to federal court or moving from its city location on Rowe Boulevard -- an option that would open up a sensible site for that new conference center Annapolis wants to build. But there is a better alternative than any of these: The Elks should demand that their national organization stop making sex and color a requisite for belonging.

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