Private Clubs, Public Privileges

April 08, 1994

There is nothing wrong with people of common backgrounds and interests forming clubs and enjoying each other's company. Sometimes these groups limit membership. There is not necessarily anything wrong with this, either. The fact that some men enjoy male-only clubs and people of a certain ethnic heritage belong to groups open only to others of the same extraction is not always a sign of prejudice.

Certainly no one who was in Annapolis this week for a legislative hearing attended by the Elks and other clubs that exclude pTC women could say they sensed any malicious intent. To the contrary, these people came across as well-meaning and dedicated to good works.

Nonetheless, the legislation they came to Annapolis to denounce -- a bill that would strip their clubs' liquor licenses unless bylaws are changed to admit women -- has merit and ought to be passed.

The clubs argue that, without liquor licenses, they will not be able to raise funds to perform charitable deeds. But good deeds are not the issue here. The question is whether a government that stands for equal opportunity for all should be granting privileges to groups that exclude. The answer is no -- especially when inclusion would not damage the purpose of the club, as is the case with the Elks, who acknowledge the admission of women would not affect their activities or goals.

The city of Annapolis has established a precedent for the bill before the General Assembly. Its law denying liquor licenses to exclusionary groups has withstood an appeal by the Annapolis Elks, who now are looking for property outside the city. They say they and other lodges will be in a real bind if the state law passes. That is unfortunate, but lawmakers should not discard this bill because it makes life more difficult for private clubs.

Nor should legislators be dissuaded by arguments that discrimination might persist. Yes, clubs could change their bylaws but still exclude in practice, but those that try could face legal challenges. Moreover, the bill would promote fairness. The Annapolis law quickly prompted change by clubs like the Annapolis Yacht Club, which admitted its first black member after the measure passed in 1991.

Not all exclusion is wrong. But private groups that seek government licenses must guarantee openness and equal treatment. The Elks and other concerned groups should concentrate on lobbying their national organizations to change their bylaws, not on persuading lawmakers to kill this bill.

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