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High Court Says Rotary Can't Exclude Women : Upholds California Law Curbing Sex Bias

May 05, 1987|DAVID G. SAVAGE | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court, striking a blow at traditional male-only clubs, Monday upheld a California anti-discrimination law and barred Rotary International from ousting local chapters that admit women as members.

In a 7-0 ruling, the justices said that private groups whose activities are public and linked to business have no constitutional right to exclude women.

The decision, which was hailed by women's rights advocates, cast doubt on the legality of the men-only policies of a host of private organizations, ranging from Lions and Kiwanis clubs to the Boy Scouts. It also significantly narrowed the acceptable grounds for a private right to discriminate.

Would Be 'Nervous'

"If I were representing Kiwanis, the Lions, the Junior League or the Boy Scouts, I would be very nervous about this decision," said Chicago attorney William Sutter, who represented Rotary International in the case. "Maybe if you're a men's golf club, with no service activities and you exist only for social purposes, you're OK. That might be all."

In the ruling, the court said that sex discrimination can be banned even in clubs that are "highly selective" in their membership--a key argument cited by Rotary International in defending its policy.

Not 'Intimate' Relation

Even if the organization closely screens its membership in an assortment of ways, "the relationship among Rotary Club members is not the kind of intimate or private relation that warrants constitutional protection," Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. wrote for the court.

Powell noted that some local Rotary chapters have as many as 900 members, allow scores of "strangers" at their weekly meetings and conduct "service activities" that do not require an all-male membership.

The ruling broadened the grounds for anti-discrimination bans laid by a high court decision three years ago involving the Jaycees. That ruling said that clubs whose memberships are open to virtually everyone cannot arbitrarily keep out women.

But the court stopped short of drawing a clear line between clubs that are so thoroughly private that they may freely discriminate based on race, sex, ancestry or religion and those like the Jaycees and Rotary, which combine both public and private aspects and therefore must follow anti-discrimination laws.

In a footnote, Powell said only that the court would decide on a case-by-case basis whether organizations are truly private and would judge based on their "size, purpose and selectivity."

'Right to Privacy'

Over the years, the high court has read the First Amendment of the Constitution to include an implied "right to privacy" or "freedom of association," even though these words are not included in the document.

Women's rights advocates agreed that the latest ruling will encourage efforts by cities and states, notably in California and New York, to attack race and sex discrimination by private clubs.

"For many of these organizations, any pretext of being truly private is purely a sham," said Lynn Hecht Schafran, an attorney for the NOW Legal Defense Fund in New York, who filed a brief urging the court to uphold California's anti-discrimination law. Groups such as Rotary are forums for business people to meet and should not be permitted to exclude business women, she said.

Called 'Great Victory'

California Deputy Atty. Gen. Marian Johnston, who defended the state's civil rights act before the Supreme Court, called the ruling a "great victory for women."

"The court has agreed that the state has a compelling interest in ensuring that women have equal access in the business world," she said.

On the losing side, Milton Meyer, chairman of the Conference of Private Organizations, whose members include the Elks, Moose and Kiwanis, suggested that the ruling covered only California and a handful of states with strict civil rights measures.

"My quick, literal reading of it is that the damage is limited mostly to California," Meyer said.

Doubts More Actions

However, Rotary attorney Sutter said that while the organization could "choose to fight this battle in every other state . . . I don't think they will want to do that."

The case arose in 1977, when the Duarte, Calif., chapter of Rotary sought to boost its tiny membership and admitted three women. Rotary International, based in Evanston, Ill., then moved to oust the local chapter for violating its bylaws.

Lawyers for the Duarte chapter defended their action by citing the state Unruh Act, which says that "business establishments of every kind whatsoever" may not discriminate based on "sex, race, color, religion, ancestry or national origin."

A trial court in Los Angeles ruled that Rotary clubs are not "business establishments," but a state appeals court disagreed, saying that they are covered by the anti-discrimination statute.

Rotary Claims Right

In its appeal to the Supreme Court, Rotary International contended that as a private organization, it had a constitutional right to associate with whom it chose, despite the state laws.

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