Burning Tree Club, the last all-male golfing bastion in the Washington area, was told by Montgomery County's state senators today that it must either open its doors to women or be stripped of its $152,000 yearly exemption from state and county property taxes.
The senate delegation voted 7 to 0 in favor of a bill that would remove tax breaks for any private clubs or organizations in the county that discriminate on the basis of sex, race, creed or color. Today's action, combined with earlier approval by the county's House members, virtually assures passage of the legislation because bills that are limited to a particular area usually are passed by the full House and Senate without debate.
The 600 men who belong to Burning Tree, one of the nation's most prestigious country clubs, pay an initiation fee of $12,000 and annual dues of $1,700. Traditionally, all presidents and Supreme Court justices are invited to join the club, but that precedent was broken with the appointment of Sandra Day O'Connor to the Supreme Court. Burning Tree is known as "The Club of Presidents," although according to the White House, neither President Reagan nor Vice President Bush is a member.
Burning Tree currently pays only $13,000 of the $165,000 it would otherwise be assessed in property taxes by the county and state because of the exemption, which is granted for providing "open space" in the urbanized county.
State Sen. Sidney Kramer (D-Montgomery), whose change of position and impassioned speech on the issue played a key role in today's outcome, said, "I voted against the bill for two years in the hope that Burning Tree would begin to look into expanding its facilities so women could be included. But nothing happened . . . and I sensed that nothing would happen unless the legislature gave the club some incentive to take action."
Kramer said the club could pay the full property tax "if it assessed another $250 in annual dues to its membership."
"Certainly the county should not endorse discrimination," said Sen. Stewart Bainum Jr. (D-Montgomery), who for three years has tried to get the legislation passed. "And we should absolutely not be granting tax breaks to those who discriminate."
Burning Tree President Jim Gibbons and vice president Dave McDonald were both out of town today, according to William Reese, a club manager.
Gibbons met last Saturday with representatives of the National Organization for Women and 21 other women's groups in the county who were supporting the bill. His only commitment then reportedly was to promise to take their views to his club's board of directors.
Today's vote was a turnaround from four weeks ago, when the delegation killed the bill by a 4-to-3 vote. One of the no votes was cast by Sen. Margaret C. Schweinhaut (D-Montgomery), the only female member of the delegation, who said she was worried that women's clubs would also lose their tax exemptions. Today, Schweinhaut changed her vote after reading a letter from women's clubs saying they did not oppose the bill because their by-laws are not discriminatory.
(Burning Tree deleted the male membership requirement from its constitution a few years ago, according to its history, "to register its freedom from bias toward the dears.")
After the senate delegation's initial rejection last month, an amendment exempting Burning Tree from the bill passed 6 to 1, the only no vote cast by a furious Bainum.
But when that version got to Montgomery's House delegation, where 13 of the 19 members are women, they promptly stripped away the Burning Tree amendment, passed the original legislation and sent it back to the senate.
At that point, NOW's Montgomery chairman, Marie McGlone, began lobbying delegation members.
It was five years ago this week that then-Maryland Attorney General Francis B. Burch ruled that Burning Tree could legally bar women from membership and continue to get the tax breaks.
Burch found "the club's policy of excluding women as members or guests" is acceptable because the club is operated "primarily" for men.
He observed that unlike other clubs, Burning Tree "does not play host to women at any other time or any other place." In fact, Burch said, "the club's pro shop, separate from the club house, allows entry to members' wives only by appointment on specific December days prior to Christmas."
The only documented breach of the all-male bastion occurred nearly 30 years ago, when a small airplane developed trouble and was forced to land near the 18th green. To the astonishment of the golfers, a woman stepped out of the plane and actually walked on the fairway. "The guys damn near fainted," reported a club historian, who added that the men dealt "gallantly" with the female intruder "until a taxi could be summoned to take her away."