Thursday, January 22, 2004
Druid Hills Golf Club snubs commission's finding
A story published today by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that the Druid Hills Golf Club's board has declared a city panel's "political decision" -- that the club violated city law by refusing spousal privileges to same-sex members -- won't stand up in court.
"While the club has not invited litigation on this policy issue, it is widely recognized among the legal community that the city ordinance is unenforceable and will not obtain final support from our state or federal courts," the golf club's board of directors said in a statement. "As a private club, DHGC believes that the issue is ultimately one of policy, not law, and that any decision made by the club must be accomplished voluntarily."
The board had declined to comment publicly since the Atlanta Human Relations Commission's finding Jan. 12.
The Human Relations Commission's findings -- reviewed by the city Law Department -- have been sent to Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin, who has about a month to decide whether to order police or other city regulatory agencies to investigate.
If an investigation were to find the club violates the city ordinance, Druid Hills could lose its liquor or business license, effectively shutting it down. The golf club would likely challenge such a move immediately in court.
Franklin was in Washington on Wednesday and could not be reached for comment.
The battle has brought into the public arena the normally shielded world of country clubs -- and put pressure on the Druid Hills club's leadership. One of the board members who had been dealing with the issue was G. Dennis Berry, president and chief operating officer of Cox Enterprises, which owns The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Berry resigned from the 15-member Druid Hills board after the city panel's finding.
He issued an e-mail statement that he resigned because "As a manager of newspaper, television and radio operations that have as a policy objectivity in news reporting, it would be inappropriate for me to continue serving on the board of directors."
Like many other large corporations, Cox Enterprises provides spousal benefits to same-sex and unmarried heterosexual partners.
Howard Hunter, an Emory University law professor and First Amendment expert, said any legal battle will turn on the issue of whether the club can be defined as solely a private club or as a public accommodation, such as a hotel, restaurant or bar.
"It's a little bit unclear how an organization like Druid Hills Golf Club fits into that," Hunter said. "The legal issue is a fine line, and it's one that hasn't really been tested."
Public accommodations are required to provide equal treatment, but private clubs, with restricted membership, do not.
The Druid Hills Golf Club leases space for weddings, corporate events and other parties, which could be interpreted as serving as a public accommodation. But the club, on Ponce de Leon Avenue, prides itself on its exclusivity. Club members pay a one-time membership fee of $50,000, plus about $475 per month in dues. The membership fee was increased from $40,000 in recent weeks.
Other cities have similar anti-discrimination laws, which have been challenged on occasion. Courts have wrangled with the delicate balance of competing First Amendment and equal rights for years.