MONTGOMERY COUNTY'S most notorious haven of publicly subsidized discrimination by sex -- the Burning Tree Club in Bethesda -- should be sending out thank-you notes to every taxpayer. After a complicated trip through the courts, this all-male club will continue to enjoy a fat tax break until enough Maryland legislators put a stop to it. Because the legislature's past efforts have been riddled with loopholes and other unclear provisions, the law now on the books will have to be rewritten -- and lawmakers in Annapolis should see to it during the General Assembly session that's about to open.
It is not a matter of denying a private organization the right to choose members as it sees fit. But as it stands, everybody in the county is stuck with the burden of making up the costs of a male-only club's special status. In round numbers, you are looking at something between $150,000 and $186,000 a year that the club would be assessed in property taxes if it didn't enjoy a discount rate.
The tax break was provided in 1965, in exchange for the club's preservation of open space. Then in 1974, the legislature voted to prohibit the state from entering into such tax arrangements with clubs that discriminate, except -- here's one legal rub -- clubs intended to serve only one sex were exempted.
Now, after years of litigation, one suit against Burning Tree and the state has been decided by the Maryland Court of Appeals. The court said that the loophole enjoyed by Burning Tree is unconstitutional; but the court also ruled that this provision may not be separated from a general prohibition against sex discrimination in country clubs -- and thus threw out both provisions. When you subtract both, you wind up allowing Burning Tree to continue getting a tax break until the legislature clamps down in clear language.
Open spaces are great, and country clubs that preserve them are fine as well. But when the club's spaces aren't open to women as they are to men, tax breaks have no place. The men and women who pay taxes shouldn't have to make up revenues lost to the county and saved by such a club.