If coed health clubs in Montgomery County offer aerobic dance classes for women, they must let men attend or provide them with their own classes, a three-member panel of the county's Human Relations Commission has decided.
The commission's panel on public accommodations reached the conclusion in an opinion released yesterday. The panel was reviewing sex discrimination complaints brought by three men denied access to women's aerobics classes at the Holiday Universal Club of Rockville.
The panel ordered U.S. Health Inc., which owns the club -- also known as Holiday Espre Center -- and health spas in Silver Spring and Bethesda, to offer men equal access to women's classes or offer men a "substantially similar" program. The company must also submit a written plan of compliance and post antidiscrimination notices in the clubs, the panel said.
While U.S. Health has the option of appealing for a rehearing, the corporation's attorney, David E. Manoogian, said it would appeal directly to the county Circuit Court.
The panel, he said, "ignored all of the evidence."
But Michael F. Dennis, compliance director for the commission, disagreed.
"It's a very simple decision," he said. "It simply states that any place of public accommodation open to both sexes . . . must be open to all members who pay the same fees."
Those sentiments were shared by a spokesman for a Washington-based men's rights group, who called the decision a "step forward" in the struggle for "comparable services" for the sexes.
"Men would prefer not to be seen as complainers," said Dan Logan, executive director of Free Men, a 3,000-member organization. "We're supposed to be strong and silent, but this is happening more and more."
Complaints were filed with the commission last August by Bruce E. Pollekoff of Washington, Ronald Busch of Rockville and Ernest A. Sahady of Reston.
"It's great," said Sahady. "Everyone can benefit from this."
The men, accountants at a Silver Spring firm, said they initially were told by membership sales people that aerobics classes would be open to them. But after joining the club, they were denied access by instructors and by club management, the men said.
At a public hearing in June, Manoogian argued that classes were designed for women of average fitness. He maintained that men would not gain from the exercises and said that female attendance would suffer because most women were "embarrassed" to exercise with men.
Most male members were not interested in taking aerobic dance classes, he said, and given the lack of demand, developing a program for them, which he said would cost $50,000, would be "prohibitive."
The panel rejected the arguments, citing evidence that women of all fitness levels were allowed in the classes and the opinion of an exercise physiologist who testified that even athletic men could benefit from the program.
According to the panel's opinion, the club could not produce evidence to show that women were embarrassed by men in their classes.
The club's ads, the opinion said, show all activities at the Espre Center as being available to both sexes.
"Yet even men of the same aerobic capacity as the female target group are barred . . . at the insistence of top corporate officials," the panel said in its opinion.
Men and women, the panel said, already exercise together in swimming, running and weight-lifting.
"In summary, barring men from aerobic dance at the coed Holiday spas is illegal discrimination," the commissioners concluded.