ACLU Pursues Discrimination Charges Over NY Woman's Exclusion from Elks Lodge Chapter

Affiliate: ACLU of New York
October 16, 2001 12:00 am

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NEW YORK-A woman’s repeated denial of membership in a local Elks Lodge is discriminatory and her case was wrongly dismissed by the state, the New York Civil Liberties Union and the Women’s Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union said in legal papers today.

“The Elks national leaders and other local lodges have recognized the importance of opening up their membership to include women,” said Karen DeCrow, a cooperating attorney for the NYCLU and the ACLU. “We believe that the state’s rejection of this case is irrational and unconstitutional.”

In its legal papers, the ACLU and NYCLU argue that the Elks Lodge’s refusal to admit Rome resident Bonnie Orendorff to its membership based on her gender is discriminatory and that the Lodge’s failure to comply with the Constitution of the Grand Lodge of Elks violates Orendorff’s legal rights.

The Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks Lodge No. 96 in Rome, a rural town of 44,000 in central New York, has never admitted a woman to its membership despite a 1995 amendment to the Constitution of the national Grand Lodge of Elks allowing women to become members.

Specifically, Orendorff is challenging a June ruling by the State Division of Human Rights, which dismissed Orendorff’s sex discrimination claim saying that the Rome Lodge is not governed by the public accommodations law because it is incorporated under the state’s Benevolent Orders law and is therefore exempt from the state’s anti-discrimination requirements.

“I have high hopes that this case will turn out wonderfully for me and all women,” Orendorff said. “I have every intention of becoming an Elk of the Rome Lodge.”

To be a member of the Elks, a candidate must be at least 21 years of age, believe in God and be sponsored by a current member. Candidates must then be approved by an investigatory committee and then approved by two-thirds of the members present and voting.

Under the 1995 amendment to the Constitution of the Grand Lodge of Elks, women were allowed to join this previously all-male organization. Discrimination on the basis of sex is now a violation of the Constitution of the Grand Lodge of Elks and its by-laws, which are binding on all local lodges including the Rome Lodge.

In March 1999, after having worked 10 years as a cook at the Rome Lodge, Orendorff applied for membership, sponsored by then-member and husband, Roger Orendorff. Having passed the investigatory phase, her candidacy was rejected in a popular vote of the members of the Rome Lodge. That month, two other women also applied to the Rome Lodge. They too were sponsored by current members and approved by the investigatory committee, but each was rejected in a popular vote of the members of the Rome Lodge. At the same meeting all male applicants submitted to membership vote were admitted.

Orendorff and the other two women reapplied in August 2000 and were again rejected by a popular vote while the male applicants were admitted. The Exalted Ruler of the Lodge declared the vote void because it was based on discrimination and ordered a revote. At the revote, however, all three women were again denied admission.

“The State’s exemption of groups like the Elks from its anti-discrimination requirements unconstitutionally enshrines and sanctions the discriminatory practices of these groups,” said Lenora Lapidus, Director of the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project. “The ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project has consistently worked to stamp out discrimination against women across the country.”

The ACLU and NYCLU today delivered their legal arguments-known as a memorandum of law and supporting affidavits-to opposing counsel in the case.

The Women’s Rights Project has overall responsibility for implementing ACLU policy in the area of gender discrimination. The WRP conducts direct litigation, files amicus curiae briefs, provides support for ACLU affiliate litigation, serves as a resource for ACLU legislative work on women’s rights, and seeks to advance ACLU policy goals through public education, organizing and participating in coalitions. The WRP has been an active participant in virtually all of the major gender discrimination litigation in the Supreme Court, in Congressional and public education efforts to remedy gender discrimination, and other endeavors on behalf of women.

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