Club's policy called anti-gay
Domestic partners don't qualify for perks given to spouses at Druid Hills Golf Club

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Jan 12, 2004

Lee Kyser put down $40,000 and pays about $475 in monthly dues at Druid Hills Golf Club, just like most other senior members of the 91-year-old Clifton Road country club near Emory University.

Kyser, a clinical psychologist, golfs there with her significant other, and plans to enroll their 2-year-old twins in swimming lessons there next year.

"We're just like any other family," Kyser said, "except that we happen to be lesbians."

This fact sits at the center of a dispute pitting Kyser and another gay couple against the club. Kyser wants her partner, attorney and political activist Lawrie Demorest, to be afforded the same privileges as other members' spouses. Randy L. New, an attorney, wants the same for his partner, Dr. Russell Tippins, who is a radiologist.

But the club has refused, citing bylaws that permit such privileges only for members who are legally married. So in July, Kyser and New filed a sexual-orientation discrimination complaint -- marking only the second time such legal action has been taken against a country club in the United States.

The first case, heralded as historic, has stalled in a California appeals court. But the complaint filed by Kyser and New will be heard and potentially decided today by Atlanta's Human Relations Commission.

Because Georgia is one of four states without an anti-discrimination law, the commission is the only place their complaint could be filed.

Although Kyser and New's case won't play out in the courts, this case, experts said, could set a precedent for country clubs in Atlanta and across the country.

"What happens in this case with Atlanta will have ramifications nationally," said Thomas F. Coleman, a California-based attorney and expert on marital-status discrimination.

Signs of acceptance

Controversy over membership policies at country clubs is nothing new; consider the commotion caused by Augusta National Golf Club's policy of barring female members.

"The battle is still going on with respect to sexual-orientation discrimination at country clubs," said Jon Davidson, senior counsel at Lambda Legal, a gay rights organization.

At the same time, gays and lesbians have been gaining acceptance; the bylaws at many clubs -- Druid Hills Golf Club, for one -- do not discourage their membership. But most clubs' bylaws say little if anything about "domestic partners."

"Clubs, like employers and state government and federal government, are struggling with exactly what rights these folks are entitled to," said Andrew S. Fortin, spokesman for the National Club Association, an industry organization. "The issue is ahead of where the law is on that, and that's causing consternation in all areas of society right now.

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"This will be a huge issue."

And it will play out at a time when other entities -- cities, states, churches, workplaces -- are grappling with how same-sex partnerships should be recognized.

'It's about families'

Kyser is an Augusta native who, while mildly interested in politics and activism, said she isn't pursuing this dispute with Druid Hills Golf Club as a way to further a "gay agenda."

"Obviously, if we could marry, we would," said Kyser, 56.. "But that's not the issue. It's about families, and there are different ways to have families."

When Kyser and Demorest sought to join Druid Hills Golf Club in 1999 -- it was in their neighborhood and had great golf -- they asked if Kyser could be the member and Demorest could be the spouse. They had a domestic partner certificate and were as close to married as they could legally be.

The hope was that Demorest, like other spouses, would be permitted to golf without paying guest fees, hold business meetings there on her own and assume the membership if Kyser died.

They were told they could join separately, not as a couple.

Kyser joined anyway, and she encouraged her friend Randy New to do so, too. The two golfing buddies were optimistic their domestic partners eventually would be granted spousal privileges.

But with each subsequent request and passing year, they received the same denials.

When Kyser and Demorest adopted twins, a boy and a girl, in the winter of 2002, Kyser's requests took a more urgent tone.

Though the children would be growing up in a Morningside home with two parents, two cats and a standard poodle, the club's policy would cause the children to "grow up with the stigma of 'we're different,' " Kyser said.

"We were patient, quiet and nice. But the children are 2 now," she said. "We had to do something before they were old enough to be hurt by it."

Said New, 49: "We tried to give the club every opportunity, but they weren't going to do it."

'Partner not a spouse'

Druid Hills Golf Club's position, according to general manager Randy Delaney, is that "a domestic partner is not a spouse, and the club has been consistent for generations in its unwillingness to recognize any form of spousal equivalency, no matter what the gender, sexual orientation or equivalent status might be."

He acknowledges that the club operates under various city licenses, and therefore might be bound by the city's anti-discrimination ordinance. That ordinance, passed in 2000, prohibits any person or organization doing business in the city from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation, among other identifiers.

"However, there are literally thousands of city licenses held by Atlanta businesses which now recognize a distinction between a spouse and a domestic partner," he wrote in a fax on Jan. 9.

If the club is in violation, then "every company health insurance plan or retirement program in Atlanta which does the same must be in violation, too. . . . Druid Hills' policies should not be considered any less favorably."

The club also could argue that, because the ordinance allows businesses to offer discounts and other special treatment to the elderly and children, "the ordinance itself allows for preferential treatment for families and that the same-sex couple is not defined as a family under state law," said Coleman, also executive director of Unmarried America, an advocacy and research organization.

Fortin of the National Club Association said the club also may be protected as a private entity with the First Amendment right to assemble. If a small group of people are drawn together for a common purpose unrelated to business, and do so on private property without making a profit, "then the government will generally stay away from telling them who to associate with," he said.

But this isn't an issue of association, Coleman said. The 1,100-member club already permits gay and lesbian members.

"It's just not good PR," he said. "About 75 percent of the city's households are headed by unmarried adults. So in Atlanta the epitome of family life is family diversity."

Mayor to respond

After the Human Relations Commission hears the case, the group will pass its decision to the mayor, who will have 30 days to respond.

If New and Kyser win, the club probably will be asked to change its policy. If it refuses to do so, the city could yank its business and liquor licenses.

If Druid Hills Golf Club wins, Kyser and New could take their case to Municipal Court. Regardless of the outcome, they both say they plan to remain members of the club -- at least for the time being.

Said Kyser: "We're fighting this battle because there is no alternative.

"But I'm not giving up the club."