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Court Taking Up Ordinances That Force Men's Clubs to Admit Women

February 23, 1988|DAVID G. SAVAGE | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court, at full strength with the addition of Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, will hear arguments today as it attempts again to define a private club.

Hanging in the balance are new ordinances in Los Angeles, New York and other cities that require private men's clubs with more than 400 members to open their doors to women and blacks.

Meal Service a Key Issue

City officials say that these clubs cannot be "distinctly private" if they are that large and serve meals to guests. But club officers, contending that such ordinances violate their constitutional rights to privacy and freedom of association, are urging the high court to strike them down.

The issue is an awkward one for Kennedy, who felt compelled to resign from two private male-only clubs before taking his seat on the high court. And, on the court, he is not alone in confronting this issue personally. Justice Harry A. Blackmun recently resigned his longtime membership in the Cosmos Club, an exclusive men's social club in Washington.

The laws being challenged are part of a broad attack by city and state officials on private clubs whose exclusionary policies pose "a significant barrier to advancement of women and minorities in the business and professional life of the city," according to the Los Angeles city ordinance.

"This is the big case for us," said Thomas Ondeck, counsel for the 5-million-member Conference of Private Organizations. "If the court goes against us, they (private social clubs) will be like restaurants. They'll have to admit everyone who has the money."

In recent years, the Supreme Court gradually has been shrinking the circle of clubs that may legally qualify as private and therefore be entitled to choose freely who should and should not be admitted as members.

In 1984, the court said that service organizations like the Jaycees were not truly private because they were large and open to all men who wanted to apply. Last year, the justices said that groups like Rotary International were not truly private because they are mostly business clubs.

Tighter Legal Definition

The city ordinances further tighten the legal definition, targeting social clubs with more than 400 members that serve meals to non-members. By declaring these elite clubs--many of them with virtually exclusive white male membership--to be essentially public establishments, the cities can prohibit them from discriminating by race, sex or religion.

The case before the high court is a challenge to a 1984 New York City ordinance that was upheld last year by that state's highest court. The Los Angeles ordinance, enacted last year, was patterned closely on it.

A ruling in the case (New York State Club Assn. vs. City of New York, 86-1836) can be expected by June.

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