An officer of the Burning Tree Club, which faces the loss of a $152,000 annual tax exemption because it discriminates against women, told a legislative committee today that loss of the exemption "might force us into the position of becoming a rich man's club."
David MacDonald, vice president of the 600-member, all-male golf club in Bethesda, which charges a $12,000 initiation fee and $1,700 annual dues, made the statement before the Senate Finance Committee. The tiny hearing room was packed with members of women's groups and anti-discrimination organizations who came to testify in favor of the bill, and members of all-male groups such as the Elks, the Moose and the Masons who came to oppose it.
Afterward, MacDonald, one of three Burning Tree members at the hearing, declined to say whether he thinks Burning Tree is currently a "rich man's club."
"That's a silly question," MacDonald said.
Asked if the club would consider admitting women if the bill passes, MacDonald said, "We would exhaust all remedies first."
The bill would take away property tax exemptions from any group in Montgomery County that discriminates on the basis of race, color, creed, sex or nationality. Burning Tree now pays only $13,609 of its $165,609 state and county property tax bill because of an exemption it receives under open-space laws, designed to encourage preservation of open land.
"This is a simple bill," said Sen. Stewart Bainum Jr. (D-Montgomery), the chief sponsor. "It says that any private club can have any members it wants. But if it discriminates, the state isn't going to ask those who are discriminated against to give a tax break to a club they can't join."
MacDonald disagreed. He came with a nine-page statement but because of the length of the hearing, he, like other witnesses, was not allowed to read all of it.
MacDonald testified that Burning Tree does not exclude women in its bylaws but said, "none have ever been proposed for membership." Later, when questioned, MacDonald said he neglected to mention that only a member could propose someone for membership.
"This is not a tax bill," MacDonald told the committee. "As applied to Burning Tree, its purpose is to deprive the members of Burning Tree of their constitutional right of association . . .
"The thrust of H.B. (House Bill) 775 is--by the withholding of a tax benefit--to require Burning Tree to take in women members," MacDonald said. He said Burning Tree's membership "includes whites, blacks, Christians, Jews, Indians, Hispanics, Japanese and Koreans."
Asked after the hearing how many black members the club has, MacDonald said, "I don't think we ought to go into that."
Burning Tree has been an all-male bastion for 60 years. The most recent and serious challenge to its exclusion of women began in February, when Montgomery County's House and Senate delegations voted overwhelmingly in favor of the measure. Montgomery County Executive Charles W. Gilchrist and the Montgomery County Council have endorsed the bill. Similar legislation was rejected by the Montgomery senators the last two years.
While local interest bills usually are approved with little debate by legislative committees and the full House and Senate, this legislation has been controversial each step of the way.
Its fate in the Senate Finance Committee remains undecided. With a vote scheduled for Wednesday, four of the eight members are committed to voting for it, three are against it, and Sen. Thomas L. Bromwell (D-Baltimore County), is undecided. A 4-to-4 vote means the committee gives the legislation an unfavorable report