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Can Country Clubs Discriminate?

As a matter of fact, there are no federal laws that prohibit private clubs from discriminating against members or guests because of a protected characteristic such as race, religion or belief, disability, sexual orientation and gender reassignment. However, many state laws do prohibit discrimination in the services or facilities offered by these organizations.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 forbids discrimination against persons who are in any place of public accommodation, including restaurants, hotels and theaters. It also makes it unlawful for any person or entity to deny full and equal enjoyment of a place of public accommodation by reason of race, color, religion, national origin, ancestry, sex or disability.

Similarly, Pennsylvania’s human relations act prohibits discrimination against people who are in any place of public accommodation, but it does not extend to social clubs. It defines a “place of public accommodation” as any establishment that caters to or offers its services, facilities or goods to the general public and which receives payment for such services, facilities or goods.

In 1992, Michigan amended its Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act to make it unlawful for any person or entity to discriminate against persons in any place of public accommodation. This law applies to golf, yachting, athletic, dining and country clubs.

The Court ruled that while true private social clubs may choose their own membership rules, when clubs engage in activities that would qualify them as business establishments such as charging non-members for use of a club’s facilities and services, they must comply with the human relations act’s provisions against discrimination. This is a significant development that could affect many private social clubs.

This could have serious implications for country clubs, especially those that charge initiation fees and have large ages of their members. A number of studies have shown that the average country club member is 42 years old, and they typically come to a club for exclusivity, high-quality service and access to facilities not available elsewhere.

A woman who used to be a member of a San Mateo golf and country club in California was recently denied the full privileges she paid for when her husband divorced her. The judge said the club violated the state’s human relations act by refusing to offer her a new membership because she was a woman.

She argued that because the club’s membership was not limited to her and her husband, it should have allowed her to continue as a full member even though she had a divorce. Her attorney, Paul D. Herbert, of the San Mateo Peninsula Law Group, urged the court to reverse its decision.

Another issue is whether the California state law regulating discrimination in business establishments applies to private social clubs, and how this might impact those who have been charged with violating the law. In 1992, the legislature amended the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act by making it unlawful for any person or entity to discriminate in any place of public accommodation by reason of race, religion, color, national origin, ancestry, disability, sexual orientation and gender reassignment.


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