UNLESS MONTGOMERY County taxpayers enjoy paying for privileges of groups that discriminate on the basis of race, sex, religion or creed, they should be cheered by a legislative effort in Annapolis that would cut off tax breaks for organizations that have such policies. This week-- after braving a thundering herd of Elks, Moose and other representatives of clubs and orders that pick and choose their members on various of these grounds--a Maryland house of delegates committee approved a bill sought by State Sen. Stewart Bainum Jr. to eliminate these tax exemptions. Next stop is the house floor, where responsible members can and should respect the conclusions of their committee as well as the local delegation and pass the measure.
As supporters of the bill have emphasized, the measure would not deny any club the right to choose its members as it sees fit; what it would do is relieve everybody else of making up the costs of a special status these clubs enjoy. The Burning Tree Club, for example, which bars women from membership, is listed as paying $13,000 instead of $165,000 that it would be assessed in property taxes without the exemption, which is granted for providing "open space" in that part of the county.
Encouraging open space is a fine idea, but not when the preservation of this green is rewarding color barriers at some clubs or--as at Burning Tree --a men-only policy, for which public money should not be spent. And arguments by club officials that their organizations do great things for charity do not justify subsidies for discrimination of this kind. During the house committee hearing, officials of Burning Tree called the bill--yes--discriminatory. That, in a sense, it is; but it is precisely the distinctions that this measure makes between fair and unfair tax policy and government philosophy that argue for its passage by the house and then the senate before this session adjourns.