Family Membership at the Club

Should golf clubs grant same-sex couples the same membership rights as heterosexual families?

One of the best ways to enjoy the game of golf is to join a club. Without a doubt, having regular access to a course, a driving range, a pro and regular playing partners is the best way to have the opportunities to both enjoy the game of golf and improve your play.

Golf clubs can also stir up controversy; just look at the hullabaloo that Hootie (this Hootie, not that Hootie) stirred up when he and Augusta National stood firm on their policy restricting women as members.

It is with this in mind that I bring your attention to the Bernardo Heights Country Club, and an emerging question at golf courses around the country:

What is a golfing family?

Birgit Koebke joined the Bernardo Heights club in 1987 and looked forward to taking advantage of the things we all enjoy: a chance to play more golf, entertain clients and friends and better her game. Single at the time, Birgit didn’t take much time worrying about the family benefits of being a member at Bernardo Heights.

Then, she fell in love, and looked into the club’s policy on family memberships. With a family membership, Birgit could bring her spouse, and if she were so lucky later in life, her children and grandchildren to the club for unlimited rounds of golf under her membership. Suddenly, the $18,000 she spent on initiation and the nearly $450 per month membership dues seemed like a wonderful deal. Her family could take advantage of her membership to enjoy and learn the game of golf, and Birgit could share her love of the game with those she loved…

…except for the fact that she was in love with another woman.

When Birgit brought her partner to the course, she was told that her partner wasn’t eligible for the same benefits that spouses of members qualified for. Instead of unlimited usgae at the club, Birgit was limited to six guest rounds with her partner, and had to pay for her partner’s green fees. Emboldened by recent discrimination lawsuit victories, Koebke and her partner sued the club for equal rights, and the case is still pending in appeals.

Regardless of what your opinions are regarding same-sex relationships – marriage, domestic partnership or what have you – the question remains this: can private clubs discriminate in their memberships?

Augusta and Bernardo Heights are just two recent examples – one in the South, one in the more-liberal California – of legal challenges to the membership restrictions imposed by private clubs. What do you think? Should private golf clubs be allowed to place these alleged discriminatory restrictions on the benefits awarded to their members, or limit their membership based on Sex? Race? Sexual orientation? Religion?

Justin over at carpeaqua weighs in with his opinion, and I’d be curious to hear your opinion too, Dear Reader. But, I’d be remiss if I didn’t weigh in with my surprisingly non-liberal opinion.

Private clubs are, by definition, private. Does that mean it’s okay for them to discriminate? No, it doesn’t; but, in my mind it does mean that they have the right to discriminate. Having worked for a private women’s college I feel that there’s a unique experience to be offered by things like single-sex institutions; what’s the difference between single-sex and same-sexual-orientation?

However, I also strongly feel that these discriminatory organizations are going the way of the dinosaur. Popular opinion and it’s impact on these clubs – especially in the form of reduced and vocally unhappy membership will eventually force even the mighty Augusta National to change its ways.

Morally right or wrong, a club is there to serve its membership. If that membership doesn’t want to extend family golfing rights to its gay and lesbian members, it can; likewise, those same members can join a different club. Things are going to change — I just don’t think it’s the job of the courts to force a private club to extend benefits to same-sex couples, regardless of whether it’s the right thing to do for their members.

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