A herd of witnesses, including representatives of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, the Loyal Order of Moose and the Improved Order of Red Man today urged the House Ways and Means Committee to kill a bill that would deny tax exemptions to private clubs in Montgomery County that discriminate on the basis of sex or race.
The elite Burning Tree Club, which would lose its tax-exempt status under the bill because it bars women from membership, registered its complaints about the measure in a hand-delivered letter to committee chairman Tyras S. Athey (D-Anne Arundel). The letter charged that the bill "appears to be aimed principally at the Burning Tree Club." The club said the bill is discriminatory and unconstitutional.
The Moose, Elks, Jaycees and United States Power Squadrons agreed that the measure is unfair, saying it violated their clubs' rights and freedoms to gather privately with members of their choice.
"We are not trying to justify discrimination," said John Hortsman of the Maryland chapter of the Loyal Order of Moose, a fraternal organization with 1,500 members in Montgomery that aids children and the elderly. "There are already ample laws against discrimination." Hortsman and his allies said that their charitable organizations would be hurt financially if the bill passes, and that their ability to contribute to charities would suffer as a result.
"I just can't believe what I heard in there," said one woman legislator who left the hearing before it ended. "These arguments against the bill are right out of the 1960s. It's the same argument people used against integration and fair housing. I had to leave before I said something nasty."
Proponents of the bill said the tax-exempt status given to certain private clubs is unfair because taxpayers are, in effect, subsidizing the clubs.
Burning Tree, for example, pays only $13,000 of the $165,000 it would otherwise be assessed in property tax because of the exemption, which is granted for providing "open space" in the urbanized area.
Supporters of the legislation say it would not deny clubs the right to choose their members, but simply removes tax privileges of clubs that exclude members on the basis of sex, religion, race or creed. Educational and religious groups, as well as youth groups such as the Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts, are not included in the bill.