U.S. Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.) wrote Maryland Gov. Harry Hughes in 1983 to complain that a proposal to strip Bethesda's all-male Burning Tree Club, to which he belongs, of its lucrative state tax break would be a violation of the constitutional right of free assembly.
When the matter went to the state's highest court last year, the club was represented by Benjamin Civiletti, the U.S. attorney general under President Carter.
Such high-powered artillery aimed at a strictly local issue has been typical of efforts by the 64-year-old club in its six-year battle with Montgomery County activists. Burning Tree, which has counted among its members presidents, Cabinet members and top officials in several White House administrations, sought to keep the $186,000 annual tax break it receives from the state. Maryland has granted the tax relief to private organizations since 1965 in exchange for maintaining acreage as open space.
Late Saturday, state Sen. Stewart Bainum Jr. (D-Montgomery), the sponsor of the bill, claimed victory when the House voted 79 to 29 to end such tax breaks for country clubs that do not allow women to join. The Senate had approved the measure in March on a 27-to-16 vote.
This year's version of the perennial measure affects only Burning Tree, a crucial difference that saved it from the defeat other bills suffered when they attempted to address race- and sex-based discrimination practiced by fraternal organizations as well. Hughes is expected to sign the measure.
James P. Doyle, a veteran Annapolis lobbyist who was hired to represent the Maryland Conference of Private Organizations, of which Burning Tree is a member, branded the bill passed by the assembly "a parochial, narrow and in some aspects mean-spirited attack on this particular club."
A spokesman for Burning Tree reached by phone today said that neither the club nor its officers will have any comment on the legislature's action. He would not say whether the club's policies will change.
In a 1984 letter to House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Tyras S. Athey (D-Anne Arundel) on an earlier version of the bill, club Vice President G. Duane Vieth called the proposal a "purposeful breach of Maryland's contract with Burning Tree" that would itself be a form of discrimination.
The club's defeat in the General Assembly this year follows another key loss in the court system last December. At that time the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled that a loophole in state tax law allowing the Burning Tree tax exemption is unconstitutional. But Burning Tree's exemption was allowed to stand because the court found that the entire tax statute was unconstitutional, and it said the General Assembly had the responsibility to specifically forbid such tax breaks.
That case and some election-year politics apparently helped the bill to its success Saturday after Athey reluctantly freed the measure.
Athey's change of heart in the matter came after House Speaker Benjamin L. Cardin directly intervened with him and with Del. Paul Weisengoff (D-Baltimore), who has found new ways to defeat the measure each time it has come before the General Assembly. Weisengoff voted for the measure Saturday.
"There was, I think, some effort to derail it," Cardin said today of the bill. "But I made it clear that I wanted the bill on the floor; no shenanigans."
Bainum walked across the hall to the House and climbed onto the rostrum to thank Cardin after the late evening vote. Today, he said that the victory is only a partial one as long as other clubs that limit their membership are allowed to receive preferential tax status.
"I'm not going to be satisfied as long as government in this country is subsidizing private clubs that discriminate," said Bainum. But Bainum excludes from that category single-sex and parochial private educational institutions.
"That kind of distinction is not invidious," he said.
But Doyle said he fails to see that distinction.
"I don't understand why it's all right in the name of God to discriminate, but when a bunch of middle-aged men tee off on a Saturday, that's invidious discrimination," he said.
But for women's activists, the victory was sweet. Anne Spiegel-Snyder, president of the Montgomery County chapter of the National Organization for Women, hailed the success of a bill "that has been near and dear to our hearts."
"What it really means is that women's tax money is not subsidizing a men's country club," she said.
Montgomery County delegates voting to end tax break for Burning Tree Club:
Mary H. Boergers (D), Gene W. Counihan (D), Jennie M. Forehand (D), Idamae Garrott (D), Marilyn Goldwater (D), Michael R. Gordon (D), Sheila Ellis Hixson (D),, Edward J. Kasemeyer (D), Diane Kirchenbauer (D) Robert H. Kittleman (D), Nancy K. Kopp (D), Helen L. Koss (D), Lucille Maurer (D), Constance A. Morella (R), Donald B. Robertson (D), Ida G. Ruben (D), Judith C. Toth (D).
Prince George's delegates voting to end tax break: Gary Alexander (D), William C. Bevan (D), David Bird (D), Susan R. Buswell (D), Gerard F. Devlin (D), Nathaniel Exum (D), Christine Miller Jones (D), Timothy F. Maloney, (D), Pauline H. Menes (D), Marian L. Patterson (D), Jerry Perry (D), Frank B. Pesci Sr. (D), Joan Pitkin (D), Frederick C. Rummage (D), Charles J. Ryan (D), Francis J. Santangelo Sr. (D), Sylvania W. Woods Jr. (D), Albert Russell Wynn (D).
Prince George's delegate voting against end to Burning Tree tax break: Dennis C. Donaldson (D). No Montgomery delegates voted against the measure.
Not voting from Montgomery: Joel Chasnoff (D), Jerry H. Hyatt (D), Joseph E. Owens (D), Patricia R. Sher (D).
Not voting from Prince George's: William R. McCaffrey (D), Thomas J. Mooney (R), Richard A. Palumbo (D), Joseph F. Vallario Jr. (D).