Elks Lodge Settles ACLU Lawsuit, Agrees to Admit Women as Members

Affiliate: ACLU of New York
June 1, 2005 12:00 am

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ROME, NY — The New York Civil Liberties Union and the Women’s Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union today hailed the settlement of a lawsuit brought by a local woman who was denied admission to an Elks Lodge here solely because of her gender. Bonnie Orendorff has agreed to drop her lawsuit on the condition that the Benevolent and Protective Order Elks Lodge No.96 admit women members on the exact basis that they admit men.

“Thanks to brave people like Bonnie Orendorff and history-making organizations like the ACLU and the NYCLU, we have taken another step forward in the battle for equality between women and men,” said Karen DeCrow, cooperating attorney with the NYCLU and the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project.

The Elks Lodge is a national network of community based philanthropic associations with a combined membership of more than one million people. To be a member of the Elks, a candidate must be at least 21 years of age, profess a belief 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 a 1995 amendment to the Constitution of the Grand Lodge of Elks, the national Elks organization, women are allowed to join this previously all-male organization. Discrimination on the basis of sex is 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.

The ACLU and the NYCLU represented Orendorff in a legal challenge to New York State’s Division of Human Rights’ dismissal of her sex discrimination claim. The dismissal was on the basis 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.

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.

“With this settlement, the chapter has agreed to fall in line with the Grand Lodge of Elks national policy, which provides for no discrimination on the basis of gender,” said Emily Martin, staff attorney of the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project. “The Rome Elks Lodge was one of a handful of local holdouts that had continued to refuse to admit women.”

Orendorff has subsequently moved to Florida, where she applied to join her local Elks Lodge. Upon learning her name, the new lodge (whose local Exalted Ruler is a woman) not only knew who Orendorff was, but welcomed and thanked her for all her work to integrate the Elks.

The brief in this case is available online at www.aclu.org/WomensRights/WomensRights.cfm?ID=18371&c=172.

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