The Bethesda Country Club, in danger of losing its preferential tax status because of alleged discrimination against black and Jewish membership applicants, has agreed to open its admissions procedures, according to the Maryland attorney general's office.
In the agreement announced yesterday, the club pledged to follow a non-discriminatory admissions policy by dropping secret ballots on membership votes and by discontinuing use of the "blackball" system. The agreement ensures that the club will keep a special tax discount on its property, which club officials say saved it about $40,000 last year.
Under a three-year-old Maryland law, the attorney general is authorized to cut off the discount - which is allowed all country clubs in the state - it he uncovers racial, sexual or religious discrimination and is unable to convince the club to stop its discriminatory practices.
The Bethesda Club, which is located on 140 acres at 7601 Bradley Blvd., was accused by the Attorney General's office in March of discriminating against Jewish membership applicants and using admissions policies that discriminated against blacks. At the time, there were 15 Jewish members and no blacks.
"If there's some practice we were following that would present the impression that we had been discriminating, we certainly want to change it," said Charles R. Hughes, president of the 800-member club. He denied, however, that the Bethesda club had been discriminating against blacks or Jews in the past.
Although club members were troubled by possible loss of the tax discount, Hughes said, their decision to amend club by-laws primarily was motivated by a desire "to do what's right. The key thing was we wanted to keep harmony. We've got to live in this world together."
The attorney general's office began investigating Maryland's country clubs about three years ago to make sure that they qualified for the discount. The tax advantage originally was granted in 1965 as an inducement to the clubs to continue using their land for open space instead of selling it for development.
Three Montgomery County clubs - Kenwood Golf and Country Club of Bethesda, Greencastle Country Club of Burtonsville and Argyle Country Club of Silver Spring - were found by the attorney general's office to be free of discriminatory practices.
Woodmont Country Club of Rockville reached an agreement with the attorney general's office last month, agreeing to allow women members to vote and hold club office. By opening club activities to women, the club was able to hold onto a tax discount amounting to more than $100,000 a year.
Several other Maryland suburban country clubs now are under investigation, and the attorney general is expected to reach a decision shortly on the Chevy Chase Club, the Columbia Country Club of Chevy Chase and Congressional Country Club of Potomac.
The club's membership ratified new by-laws last month that eliminated two complaints of the attorney general's office - secret balloting by the 15 member board of directors on membership applications and the use of a two-vote blackball system to reject an applicant for membership.
In the future, votes of board members will be made available to one another and recorded for review of the attorney general's office. A new member must only have the affirmative votes of a majority of the board members to gain admission to the club.