The state attorney general's office announced Wednesday that it will investigate whether members of the Van Nuys Elks Lodge violated state civil rights laws last month in twice rejecting two blacks who applied for membership in the predominantly white club.
The decision follows a similar investigation into the Lompoc Elks Lodge, which rejected two blacks for membership last winter. That investigation was called off after the lodge voted last month to admit the men under new voting laws passed last July by the national membership, Deputy Atty. Gen. Louis Verdugo said.
The new laws allow lodges to admit members by a two-thirds vote. Previously, applicants could be rejected if as few as three members opposed them.
Before investigators try to determine whether the club's votes constitute illegal discrimination, they must decide whether the matter falls within the attorney general's jurisdiction, said Verdugo, who works in the office's Civil Rights Enforcement Unit in Los Angeles. That means showing that the lodge has attributes of a business or that membership generates business advantages, he said.
If investigators find evidence of illegality, they will present the findings to a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge, who can hold a hearing to decide whether to order the lodge not to consider race in reviewing membership applications, Verdugo said.
Dan Davis, a spokesman for the 300-member lodge, said he was unaware of the attorney general's decision and could not comment on it. He has said in the past that the lodge is not racist and that it accepts applications from men of all minority groups.
The rejected black applicants Wednesday welcomed the investigation but said they wished it were unnecessary.
"It's ridiculous that this has come to pass," said Thomas J. Montgomery, 67, a retired state motor vehicles examiner who was awarded the Bronze Star for valor in the Army in World War II.
"I never had any idea that racism was so close to us here in the San Fernando Valley, in Van Nuys. I was shocked that we were turned down, and the second time was even worse."
The other rejected applicant, Jules S. Bagneris III, said: "If the Van Nuys Elks are without racial prejudice, then they have nothing to fear from an investigation. It's not a big surprise that he is going forward with it. Where there's smoke, there's fire, and apparently the smoke was strong enough to warrant a full investigation."
Bagneris, 29, is a Lake View Terrace resident and minister at an African Methodist Episcopal Church in El Centro who ran unsuccessfully against Los Angeles City Councilman Ernani Bernardi in April.
State Sen. Alan Robbins (D-Tarzana), a lodge member who sponsored Bagneris and Montgomery for membership, said he does not believe the inquiry will uncover evidence of widespread racism.
"I don't think it's a case of bias by the entire lodge," he said. "I think there are some members that are racially motivated, but I think they are a small minority.
"A majority of the members that voted are in favor of admission," he said, referring to the second ballot vote of 34 to 19 to admit the men, two votes short of the needed two-thirds support.