While Martha Burk has a First Amendment right to speak out against gender disparity at Augusta National, the Constitution, Congress and the courts also recognize the right of a private club to remain exactly that—private. Shoot-Out Between Hootie and the Blowhard Continues

The media frenzy over the war between William "Hootie" Johnson, chairman of the exclusive Augusta National Golf Club, and the boisterous chairwoman of the National Council of Women's Organizations, Martha Burk, is reaching a fever pitch.

Perhaps tired of letting Martha Burk control the airwaves on the issue of Augusta National's private membership policies, this week Hootie came out with a very public counteroffensive against Burk. Conducting a number of one-on-one interviews with members of the press, Hootie announced the results of a national public opinion poll taken in response to Burk's publicity-driven demands for the club to admit a woman as a member. The par three version: the survey shows overwhelming support for the private club's right to choose its own members.

According to the poll, made up of 51 percent women respondents, 62 percent of those surveyed support Augusta National's right to not admit a woman; 72 percent believe Augusta "should not give in to Martha Burk's demand" and support the club's right to "review and change their policies on their own time and in their own way."

Perhaps the other 28 percent of respondents need a refresher course on the U.S. Constitution.

While Martha Burk has a First Amendment right to speak out against gender disparity at Augusta National, the Constitution, Congress and the courts also recognize the right of a private club to remain exactly that — private. Congress expressly excluded private clubs from coverage under Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Private clubs are excluded as well from coverage under the Civil Rights Act. Last term, the United States Supreme Court reaffirmed in Boy Scouts of America v. Dale that an organization's freedom of expressive association may be infringed upon by imposing restrictions on the group's ability to exclude individuals with different ideologies or philosophies.

In order for an organization to be subject to scrutiny under the ADA and applicable state public accommodation laws that give individuals equal access to public goods and services, and therefore not within the exclusions, the organization must be deemed to be a place of public accommodation. How one can, with a straight face, argue that Augusta National, with all of its 300 members, is a place of public accommodation simply because it hosts a premier golf tournament, is beyond comprehension. With millions of golfers throughout the world, few will ever step foot on the manicured greens of Augusta National, and few more will even be granted gallery access during the Masters.

Yet even though membership, for now, is made up of men-only, women are allowed as guests at Augusta National and last year women played more than 1,000 rounds of golf there without restricted tee times. LPGA Champion Nancy Lopez is reported as saying that she doesn't mind Augusta National's long-standing practice of male-only members, acknowledging that it is part of a "tradition."

In golf, a hustler is someone who maintains an artificially high handicap in order to win bets. Off the links, Ms. Burk should be criticized for her own form of hustling - having no legal leg to stand on, she resorts to harassing club members and the corporations that employ them, tournament sponsors, CBS and the PGA Tour in an effort to get Augusta National to choke.

If Ms. Burk is successful in her effort to dictate the internal policies of this private club, other private clubs may have to revisit their membership rules. For example, the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution should reconsider its policy of limiting membership to women-only. Same for the Junior League, which is open to women of all races, creeds, religions and national origins. Maybe Ms. Burk's organization, the National Council of Women's Organizations, could be forced to change from an organization whose membership is "composed predominantly of women."

Ms. Burk is in dire need of a reality check. Certainly the priorities her organization espouses to address, such as workplace and economic issues, education, job training, women's health and reproductive health, are more important than finding a green jacket for a septuagenarian multimillionaire of the female persuasion.

For more on Martha Burk's war on Augusta, click here

November 14, 2002
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