Hagerstown Moose Lodge will close

March 31, 1994|By Marcia Myers | Marcia Myers,Sun Staff Writer

The Hagerstown Moose Lodge, which saw its charter revoked and its doors shut last month after rejecting a black applicant, has agreed to sell its building and close permanently to settle a two-year-old racial discrimination suit.

Although some lodge members had talked of starting a new organization, the agreement prohibits that. The lodge was the Moose's largest in the nation, with 7,500 members.

The settlement, approved by Senior U.S. District Judge John R. Hargrove, resolves a complaint filed in 1992 by the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU accused the lodge of turning away black nonmembers at its restaurant, even though it served white nonmembers.

ACLU Legal Director Susan Goering said the stakes presented by the suit were formidable for the club. Had the lodge lost in court, the case might have legally redefined Moose lodges and similar organizations as public accommodations rather than private clubs, robbing them of many tax breaks, she said.

She predicted that the settlement would cause many organizations to take note. "The message is that even though you call yourself a private club, if you operate like a restaurant, you have to obey civil rights laws."

The discrimination issue also has been taken up recently by the Maryland General Assembly, which is considering legislation that would prohibit discrimination by any private club that has a liquor license.

But Kurt Wehrmeister, national Moose spokesman, said that is not the issue for his group.

"One of the things we had said repeatedly is that Moose lodge facilities are solely for the members and their families and guests," he said. "We have enforced that, and we intend to continue to."

Former leaders of the Hagerstown lodge declined to comment.

Allegations in the ACLU suit charged the lodge with turning away black diners on the grounds that they were not members. However two white people, who tested the practice for the ACLU, were allowed to eat at the lodge and were encouraged to apply for membership, the suit said.

As part of the settlement agreement, the lodge will pay the ACLU $25,000 for attorney fees and other costs.

The settlement, which was signed by Judge Hargrove March 16 but obtained by the ACLU yesterday, cements the Hagerstown lodge's future -- which already had been spelled out by headquarters.

National leaders of the Loyal Order of Moose closed the lodge Feb. 24, one week after the Hagerstown lodge rejected a black man who wanted to become its first minority member. The group already was under scrutiny because of the ACLU suit and had been closed temporarily last summer for serving nonmembers.

Lodge members voted 52-19 to reject James Yates, 43, an auto-preparation technician. The other prospective members, all white, were approved.

Civil rights leaders and politicians pelted the group with charges of racism, but lodge leaders insisted that Mr. Yates was rejected because he and his sponsor had publicly discussed Moose affairs.

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