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. This 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 women could say they sensed malicious intent. Indeed, 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 state legislation. 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 bill passes. That is unfortunate, but insufficient reason for lawmakers to discard this legislation.

Nor should the lawmakers be dissuaded by arguments that the bill might not stop discrimination. Yes, clubs could change their bylaws and still exclude in practice, but those that try to do so probably would leave themselves open to legal challenges. Moreover, there is reason to believe the bill would promote fairness. Annapolis' law quickly prompted change by groups such as the Annapolis Yacht Club, which admitted its first black member, the late Dr. Aris Allen, after the measure passed in 1991.

Not all exclusion is wrong. But equal treatment must be a requisite for private groups that want public support. The Elks and other clubs worried about losing that support should be lobbying their national organizations to change the rules, not pressuring lawmakers to kill this bill.

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