Clubs that discriminate could lose liquor licenses

March 30, 1994|By John W. Frece | John W. Frece,Sun Staff Writer

Elks clubs across Maryland and other men-only retreats such as Baltimore's posh Maryland Club could lose their liquor licenses under a bill passed by the state Senate yesterday.

The measure would deny liquor licenses to private clubs with rules, regulations or bylaws that exclude members because of their race, sex, religion, physical handicap or national origin.

"It is very disappointing," said Frank Webber, Maryland spokesman for the Elks. If Elks clubs lose their liquor licenses, attendance will decline and there will be a commensurate drop in charitable giving, he predicted.

The bill, approved 38-9, now goes to the House of Delegates for consideration in the final two weeks of the legislative session. Because of its late arrival, the bill will initially go to the Rules Committee and, if it survives a vote there, on to the Economic Matters Committee.

Del. Hattie N. Harrison, D-Baltimore, chairwoman of the Rules Committee and a member of Economic Matters, said she believed the bill would emerge from Rules "unless it is very, very, very controversial," and said it has a "good chance in Economic Matters as well."

The proposed legislation was sponsored by Sen. Gloria Lawlah of Prince George's County, who is black. It was co-sponsored by two other black senators, Ralph Hughes of Baltimore and Decatur Trotter of Prince George's County, and one Jewish senator, Paula C. Hollinger of Baltimore County. All four are Democrats.

It is modeled after an Annapolis ordinance enacted in 1990 and upheld as legal by Maryland's Court of Appeals in January. Armed with that victory, civil rights groups pushed for a statewide anti-discrimination law.

However, the bill did not gain much momentum until a 7,500-member Moose Lodge in Hagerstown was forced to close last month by its national leadership because it had rejected an otherwise qualified black applicant from membership.

There was disagreement yesterday about the circumstances that would cause a club to lose its liquor license under the bill.

"The real issue is, do you have anything in your bylaws [that requires a discriminatory membership practice]," said Assistant Attorney General Robert A. Zarnoch. Only then, he said, could a club face the loss of its license.

But Nevett Steele Jr., a Towson lawyer who has been pushing for passage of the bill, said he believes someone who is rejected for membership for discriminatory reasons could still sue the club and challenge its right to have a liquor license even if the discriminatory practice is not codified in the club's bylaws.

Earlier this month, witnesses told the Senate Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee that private clubs often play a significant role in the business and professional worlds.

"Membership in a private club opens the door to new business contacts and clients and confers upon an individual an ability to meaningfully participate in business and professional opportunities that would otherwise be inaccessible," Deborah S. Byrnes, a lawyer with the Baltimore firm of Whiteford, Taylor & Preston, testified.

"Those who are excluded from membership are at a distinct competitive disadvantage."

Women are excluded from becoming members of Maryland's 34 Elks lodges under the organization's national bylaws.

After the Annapolis ordinance was passed, Annapolis Elks Lodge Number 622 challenged the law and won in the Circuit Court, but saw that victory reversed by the Court of Appeals.

The Elks asked their national headquarters to allow them to admit women, but the request was denied. Rather than lose its liquor license, the club decided to sell its property and move to a new location outside Annapolis.

Burning Tree, the golf and country club known as "The Club of Presidents," also prohibits women from being members, but it is unclear whether it does so by bylaw or practice.

"I know it is their policy not to admit women, but whether it is written into their bylaws, I don't know because I haven't read them," said their Annapolis lobbyist, James Goeden.

A club spokesman declined to comment.

In 1989, when the state passed a law repealing tax breaks for country clubs that discriminate in membership, Burning Tree gave up its tax break rather than change its membership requirements.

The Maryland Club at the corner of Charles and Eager Streets in downtown Baltimore, established by an act of the General Assembly in 1858, also has historically excluded women from membership. But, like Burning Tree, it is unclear whether that is by practice or by written rule.

"I don't talk to newspapers," said Maryland Club President Richard C. Riggs Jr., when reached at home last night. "I don't have any comment."

Nonprofit veterans clubs, such as American Legion or Veterans of Foreign Wars, are already prohibited by federal tax laws from discriminating in membership and do not appear to be directly affected by the proposed law.

Religious organizations, such as the Knights of Columbus, are specifically exempted from the bill's provisions. Country clubs would be covered by the bill, but most already adhere to a nondiscriminatory membership policy as a condition of being granted tax breaks from the state.

Mr. Goeden, who represents those clubs, said they are concerned that the bill sets up a new, parallel complaint procedure that could open them to a second set of challenges: first, for their tax break status and, failing that, for their liquor licenses.

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