The Maryland Senate passed a bill today designed to strip the exclusive Burning Tree Club in Potomac of a large annual tax break on grounds that it refuses to admit women.
The bill, supported by all seven senators from Montgomery County, passed the Senate without discussion on a vote of 27 to 16. It now goes to the House Ways and Means Committee, which deals with tax matters.
The bill's sponsor, Sen. Stewart Bainum Jr. (D-Montgomery), who has introduced several similar measures in the past, said he expects stiffer opposition there.
"I think the House is always a little tougher than the Senate," he said after the Senate voted. "But I'm optimistic." He said the bill applies only to Burning Tree, and will not affect larger organizations such as Elks lodges and other fraternal organizations.
The Burning Tree Club has been a male bastion since it was founded 63 years ago. Since 1965 Maryland has granted tax breaks to country clubs as part of a program to preserve open space, but in 1974 the law was changed to prohibit the tax breaks to clubs that discriminate.
However, an amendment was added to exempt single-sex clubs; Burning Tree was the only club affected. The break exempts the club from about $186,000 in taxes each year.
Bills designed to remove tax exemptions from all clubs that discriminate -- not just Burning Tree -- were defeated in 1983, 1984 and 1985.
Two lawsuits were filed against the club in 1983 -- one by Bainum and the other by Attorney General Stephen H. Sachs -- to strike down the tax break. Sachs' suit was dismissed by a Circuit Court judge, but another Circuit judge ruled in favor of Bainum.
The club appealed the decision, and last December the state's highest court also ruled against Burning Tree, striking down the amendment granting the break.
But the club still came out on top. Because of a legal technicality, the court also struck down parts of the law that prohibited country clubs from discriminating, thus allowing Burning Tree to continue its male-only policy.
Even though Bainum's bill applies only to Burning Tree, many clubs and fraternal organizations spoke against it at hearings earlier this month, fearing that it could set a precedent that would work against them.
Several golfing clubs that admit women also opposed the bill, saying that the legislation could lead to new laws that would ban such traditions as separate starting times for men and women golfers.
"I'm totally sympathetic with the intent of the bill," said Sen. Frank J. Komenda (D-Prince George's), who voted against it. "And if it affected Burning Tree I really couldn't care less."
But Komenda said the same sort of thinking involved in taking the club's tax break away could eventually be turned against charitable organizations and schools that discriminate.
"You may do some irreprable harm to some worthy organizations," he said.