Efforts to strip the Burning Tree Club of its annual $152,000 property tax exemption because it discriminates against women, which nearly succeeded in the Maryland legislature last spring, may be resumed in the court system in the near future.
State Sen. Stewart Bainum Jr. (D-Montgomery), the chief sponsor of the legislative attempt to take away the tax break from the prestigious, all-male, Bethesda club, delivered a letter to Attorney General Stephen H. Sachs yesterday asking him to issue a formal opinion declaring the exemption unconstitutional.
"The irony and impropriety of our state's affording favorable tax treatment to country clubs that explicitly exclude persons on the basis of their sex is deeply troubling," Bainum wrote to Sachs.
Bainum's bill, which Sachs had publicly supported, was killed by parliamentary maneuvering in the legislature's final monents in April.
"We began researching the question after the session because of the interest generated by Stewart's bill and because it was the attorney general's office in February 1978, the year before Sachs was elected which wrote the letter granting Burning Tree its exemption from the state Equal Rights Amendment," Sachs said yesterday. "We thought the question merited looking into."
If Sachs finds the Burning Tree exemption violates the state's ERA, which was passed in 1972, it is likely that he and Bainum will go to court to seek a declaratory judgment against the club.
Such an action would be necessary because the state has a contract with Burning Tree that grants it a property tax exemption for preserving "open space" by not developing the property. Many opponents of the Burning Tree legislation cited the contract as their reason for voting against the bill.
Jim Gibbons, president of Burning Tree, had no comment yesterday on the latest assault on the men-only club, except to say, "This if the first I've heard of it."
Bainum, who first sponsored the legislation three years ago while in the House of Delegates, sent Sachs a second letter yesterday asking him to research the question of all private clubs and organizations in the state that discriminate on the basis of sex, race or religion. During the session, many legislators complained that Bainum was asking for too much by including organizations such as the Elks and the Moose in the legislation.
Bainum said he was encouraged by the recent ruling of the U. S. Supreme Court in the Bob Jones University case, which held that educational institutions that discrimate on the basis of race cannot receive income tax exemptions. Bainum said he feels that ruling has a bearing on the fraternal and religious organizations that were covered under his bill.
Sachs said the second letter "raises a completely different set of questions. We will have to look into it."
Burning Tree is known as the "club of presidents" because many presidents (but not President Reagan) have been members. Supreme Court members were routinely offered membership upon appointment until Reagan appointed Sandra Day O'Connor two years ago. Many members of Congress are members there, including Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.), who wrote Gov. Harry Hughes an angry letter after Hughes came out in favor of Bainum's bill.
Members of Burning Tree, which charges a $12,000 initiation fee to its 600 members and $1,700 in annual dues, testified against the bill, saying its passage might turn Burning Tree into "a rich man's club."