Common sense on Rotary

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THIS week's ruling by the United States Supreme Court that states may outlaw sex discrimination by Rotary Clubs is a welcome step toward including women in all phases of public, professional, and civic life. In many a small town, and some not-so-small towns, the local Rotary Club is as important a group of movers and shakers as one could find. Rotary has been a good place for ``networking'' since long before that term first popped up in the public prints. And so as women have moved into the business and professional mainstream, their exclusion from Rotary and other service organizations has come to seem more and more absurd.

In the communities where Rotary and similar organizations are important, women are enjoying higher profiles not just as schoolteachers and librarians - important as those posts are - but on the city and county councils, in the local media, in the law offices and professional suites, at the banks, in the chambers of commerce and the real estate offices. And of course women are going into business on their own in record numbers.

No federal law prohibits private clubs like Rotary from excluding women from their membership. But many states, including California, where the present case arose, have outlawed sex discrimination by business establishments and in public accommodation. Organizations like Rotary have been construed as businesses and their male-only membership policies in effect made illegal.

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Now the Supreme Court has endorsed this policy. This case went a bit further than a 1984 decision outlawing the men-only membership policy of the Jaycees. The Jaycees' policy had been to accept virtually any man between ages 18 and 35 who applied for membership.

In the present case, Rotary International tried to argue that its clubs were more selective, and hence were to be protected under guarantees of freedom of association, rather than forced to open their doors as public accommodations. But the court rejected this reasoning.

Many questions on private clubs remain. It's generally accepted that this ruling will apply to groups such as Kiwanis Clubs, the Lions Clubs, and other large international service clubs. Some advocates of male-only membership policies by these bodies have made dire predictions of Pilot Clubs and other women's groups being besieged with male applicants whom they will no longer be able to turn away.

Our guess is that most women will be prepared to take their chances on this one.

Meanwhile, the court seems to have left alone truly private clubs, whether male or female - as long as they really are private.

Surely there are places for single-sex associations. But keeping women out of groups like Rotary, whatever the original motivation, has been a way of limiting women's participation in their communities. It's good to see this restriction lifted.

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