A coalition of feminist and liberal groups is seeking to block the renewal of a liquor license for the all-male Cosmos Club, charging that the club's refusal to admit women violates a D.C. antidiscrimination law.
The effort is the first public move against all-male clubs in the District by the Private Clubs Discrimination Project, a coalition of Americans for Democratic Action, the National Women's Political Caucus, the D.C. chapter of the National Organization for Women and other groups.
"It increasingly struck us as . . . absurd and outrageous that in the capital of the United States in 1986 we would have major institutions that openly discriminate against women," said Ann F. Lewis, national director of the ADA.
"Not being able to participate in these clubs can be a bar to women in their careers," she said. "There's a networking that can go on in private clubs and when women are excluded from them it can be a real problem."
The Cosmos' Club's liquor license came up for renewal yesterday before the D.C. Alcohol Beverage Control Board. The complaint was set for a hearing Sept. 10.
Ben Johnson, administrator of the Business Regulation Administration, which oversees the liquor licensing process, said yesterday that the Alcohol Beverage Control Board "has no jurisdiction over this particular matter" because the club has not been cited by the D.C. Office of Human Rights for violating the human rights law.
"There's no ABC violation around this particular protest issue," Johnson said. "It may very well be a violation of the human rights law."
The director of the Office of Human Rights, Maudine Cooper, said, "We would like to have the ADA come in and indeed file the case with us."
Cosmos Club President Bruce E. Clubb declined to comment about the complaint or about the possible impact the loss of liquor license would have on the club.
Members of the Cosmos Club, located in a mansion at 2121 Massachusetts Ave. NW, include at least one Supreme Court justice, top government officials, scientists, educators and lawyers. The issue of admitting women has divided the club for more than a decade, arising most recently when the club voted in January to suspend the reprimand of a club member who led an unsuccessful movement to allow women members.
The coalition contends that the Cosmos Club's exclusion of women violates the D.C. Human Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination based upon sex in any "place of public accommodation."
Although the human rights law specifically exempts "distinctively private" clubs, the group argued in a July 22 memorandum to the Alcohol Beverage Control Board that the club's "substantial membership roster and calendar of revenue-deriving events" may make it a place of public accommodation.
Even if it is considered a private club, the memorandum stated, the law also requires that issuance of all licenses be conditioned upon compliance with its nondiscrimination provisions and makes violation of the law a proper basis to revoke a license.
The club's "sex-based exclusionary practices are so egregious, and work such an invidious discrimination against many citizens of this community, that we believe it to be a fundamental violation of public policy for the Cosmos Club to continue to receive a city-conferred liquor license," the memorandum said.
The coalition also plans to employ a 1977 federal directive cautioning federal officials against participating in meetings held at discriminatory facilities.
In May, Lewis wrote to Assistant Secretary of Defense James H. Webb Jr., who was scheduled to speak at the Cosmos Club on June 2 on "Being a Writer as Government Official."
"Your participation in a meeting at one of the few openly discriminatory facilities still operating in the nation's capital would clearly violate this policy -- and, we believe, would violate important American principles as well," Lewis wrote.
Webb sent back a memorandum by Assistant General Counsel Robert L. Gilliat concluding that federal policy did not bar the speech, primarily because Webb was not speaking in his official capacity.
Lewis said the group would watch the club's bulletin for other federal officials scheduled to speak there. "We will regularly be writing and notifying federal officials that as we read the personnel manual, this is not allowed," she said.