Club doors pushed open a bit more for women. SUPREME COURT

The United States Supreme Court, which of late has consistently championed ending gender bias in the workplace, has lit another torch for women's rights in the highly controversial area of club memberships. Led by Associate Justice Byron White, the justices on Monday unanimously upheld a New York City law that bars discrimination against women and minorities by private clubs with more than 400 members.

Civil rights groups - particularly women's organizations - immediately praised the decision. Lynn Hecht Schafran, a lawyer for the National Organization for Women, calls it the ``latest in a line of cases recognizing the harm done to a large number of women and minorities when they are excluded from organizations and clubs which are central to the business, civic, professional, and public life of the country.''

Monday's ruling will affect membership policies of more than 100 clubs and associations in New York State and those of political, social, and athletic groups in many cities across the United States. Buffalo, N.Y.; Chicago; Detroit; Los Angeles; and Washington recently enacted ordinances against gender bias similar to New York's law.

Several prominent associations had expected this ruling. The prestigious Cosmos Club in Washington, D.C., for example, just this past weekend voted overwhelmingly to abandon its century-old all-male policy and will accept nominations for women memberships.

Last summer, Kiwanis International changed its rules to allow its 8,000 clubs worldwide to admit women.

At issue in this case, New York State Club Association Inc. v. City of New York, was whether the First Amendment concept of the right to associate protects clubs from being forced to open their memberships to individuals not of their choosing.

In a 1984 ruling, the justices upheld a Minnesota statute requiring the US Jaycees to accept women, holding that the protection given a private club would depend on factors such as size, purpose, and selectivity of the group.

Last year this rationale was again used by the Supreme Court to sustain a California law requiring Rotary clubs to abandon their men-only tradition.

It was held in both cases that neither group was private for the purposes of the First Amendment, because membership extended to a large segment of the public and also because the public purposes behind service activities would not be significantly adversely affected by complying with anti-discrimination law.

In his opinion on the New York case, Justice White conceded that a ``considerable amount of private or intimate association'' might occur in these clubs. He stressed, however, that a similar situation exists ``in many restaurants and other places of accommodation, but that fact does not afford the entity as a whole any constitutional immunity to practice discrimination when the government has barred it from doing so.''

The court said that there are organizations that are ``distinctly private'' and are exempted from a law banning discrimination. But it added that nonreligious groups can receive no such accommodation if they have more than 400 members, provide regular meal service, and if members' dues often are paid by their employers.

Those who were cited for discriminating under the New York ordinance - including the New York Athletic Club, the University Club, the Century Association, and the Urban League Club - said that the statute denied individual groups sufficient opportunity to prove why they should not be treated as protected, private groups rather than as public accommodations. The challengers of the New York law also stressed that freedom of association is constitutionally protected.

Justice White held, however, that the statute in question can be applied in a way that does not hinder freedom of association. Individual clubs are still free to show the courts why this law should not apply to them, he said.

The anti-discrimination ordinance, enacted by New York City in 1984, survived lower court challenges. The state Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals (the highest appellate tribunal in New York State) found that private clubs do not have the right to practice ``invidious discrimination'' against women and minorities in distributing business advantages and privileges.

The state Court of Appeals further found that any burden placed on protected speech activities of private clubs was minimal and was outweighed by the strong public policy of the city to eliminate discrimination.

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