Maryland's attorney general ruled yesterday that Bethesda's Burning Tree Club, one of the most prestigious in the nation, can legally continue to bar women from its membership even though it receives special tax breaks from the state.
The tax breaks, in the form of reduced property tax assessments, are being withdrawn by the state from clubs that are found to discriminate against blacks and other minorities. Under Maryland law, however, "the club's policy of excluding women as members or guests" is acceptable if the club is operated "primarily" for men.
As evidence of that intent, Attorney General Francis B. Burch cited the fact that the men's locker room facilities occupy two thirds of the Burning Tree's clubhouse and a "substantial addition" would have to be built to serve both sexes.
The attorney general also observes that the Burning Tree Club, unlike other clubs, "does not play host to women at any other time or any other place."
In fact, the attorney general notes:* "The club's pro shop, separate from the clubhouse, allows entry to members' wives only by appointment on specific December days prior to Christmas."
Jon F. Oater, deputy attorney general, said the ruling yesterday also found that the country club does not discriminate against race because the 547 male members include two blacks as well as "members of Spanish, Indian and Oriental origin."
The ruling means the country club will be able to maintain its lower cost "open space" tax assessment, Oster said.
Under that tax break, the country club is assessed according to its use as a golf course instead of its much higher market value.
The expansive country club located on River Road has been the golfing territory of presidents, congressmen, corporation leaders, prominent doctors and attorneys and Supreme Court justices.
With names of current and former members such as former President Gerald Ford, former Attorney General John Mitchell and countless other prominent personages, the club has mean a special sort of status for men with an interest in golf.
There has been so much influence in that club that it was able to get the Capitol Beltway rerouted around most of its golf course when the beltway was originally scheduled to go through the club's back nine holes.
Oster said the attorney general has recently found a practice of racial discrimination in several other Montgomery County Country clubs including the Bethesda Country club and the Woodmont Country Club in Rockville. He said in each case a consent decree was signed by the country club officials to eliminate discriminatory practices.
According to Oster, only four or five country clubs have not yet been ruled upon by the attorney general concerning their membership practices.
Burning Tree, according to its own history of operation has deleted the "male" membership requirement from its constitution "to register its freedom from bias toward the dears." However, its history and the ruling yesterday will maintain it as the only all male golf clubs in the Washington area.
The bastion of the all-made golf club was breached only once about 23 years ago when a small airplane traveling over the Montgomery County countryside developed trouble and was forced to land on the golf course.
To the surprise of golfers a woman stepped out of the plane. "The guys damn near fainted," reported one Burning Tree historian.
The historian said the woman was dealt with "gallantly" until a taxi could be called to take her away.