The Burning Tree Club has hired former U.S. attorney general Benjamin R. Civiletti to defend it against lawsuits that seek to cancel its annual $152,000 property tax exemption because it discriminates against women.

The all-male country club in Bethesda, whose 600 members pay a $12,000 initiation fee and $1,700 in annual dues, hired Civiletti to fight a lawsuit filed by Maryland Attorney General Stephen H. Sachs that seeks to take away the club's tax exemption because Sachs, in an opinion last month, found it violates the state's Equal Rights Amendment. The state waives property taxes for organizations, such as Burning Tree, that preserve space in open areas.

Civiletti is a senior partner in the Baltimore law firm of Venable, Baitcher and Howard, which he joined in 1981 after serving as attorney general under President Jimmy Carter. According to sources familiar with legal fees in Baltimore, it might cost Burning Tree $100,000 or more to have Civiletti represent the club in two lawsuits pending in Montgomery Circuit Court. Club officials declined to comment yesterday on Civiletti's hiring or his fee. Civiletti could not be reached for comment.

Sachs and Civiletti are friends who once worked together as assistant U.S. attorneys in Baltimore. Sachs said yesterday that Civiletti's entry into the case would not result in a courtroom showdown with his former colleague.

"I will not change our game plan because of his presence," Sachs said. "This is not a question of policy, but a question of what is constitutional on state law. And on that count we feel we have a large advantage."

A similar lawsuit has been filed by State Sen. Stewart Bainum Jr. (D-Montgomery), who for the last three years unsuccessfully sought to have the General Assembly strip the club of its tax break.

Throughout its 60 years of existence, Burning Tree has been an all-male bastion for the wealthy and the powerful, including presidents, members of Congress and Supreme Court justices. The only time women are allowed on the grounds is during the Christmas season, when members' wives are allowed to shop at the club's pro shop--by appointment only.

Club Vice President David McDonald told a legislative committee last April that if Bainum's bill passed, rather than admitting women, Burning Tree would be forced to raise its dues to pay the extra property tax, and that the club might become "a rich man's club."

Yesterday, Bainum said he was not that surprised that Burning Tree had hired Civiletti. "It's ironic that on the one hand they say they don't want to lose the exemption because they'll become a rich man's club and on the other they go out and hire the most expensive counsel in the state," Bainum said. "They're in an enviable position. Of course a lot of their money is the public's money they've been getting all these years by having the tax break. "But it doesn't really matter. If they hired Saint Paul as their lawyer it wouldn't change the merits of the case." CAPTION: Picture, BENJAMIN CIVILETTI . . . sources estimate fees at $100,000