Mayor's bogie

Franklin's swing at Druid Hills Golf Club looks way off

At about this time last year, state Rep. Earl Ehrhart, R-Powder Springs, was drafting a bill to nullify parts of an Atlanta city ordinance that grants same-sex couples the same legal rights and privileges as married ones.

Ehrhart floated the bill because the city of Atlanta was pressuring the Druid Hills Golf Club to change its partner benefits policy. The club treats partners of gay members as guests while straight spouses are given full membership privileges.

Last year, however, Ehrhart was a member of the Republican minority in the state House, and his bill got nowhere.

Things have changed.

Any day now, Ehrhart will be named one of the highest-ranking members of the General Assembly — both houses of which are now controlled by the GOP for the first time since Reconstruction. What's more, Ehrhart's appointment will come on the heels of a November general election in which more than three-fourths of Georgians voted for a constitutional amendment outlawing gay marriage.

Yet not long after the GOP and anti-gay marriage landslides — and three weeks before the start of the landmark 2005 legislative session — a frustrated Mayor Shirley Franklin decided to cut off negotiations with Druid Hills Golf Club officials, informing the club that it's subject to fines of up to $500 a day for violating the city's 4-year-old, yet-untested nondiscrimination ordinance.

That move effectively turned the ordinance into a "red flag in front of a bull," says Ehrhart, who's now more ready than ever to push for the bill's passage.

What was Franklin thinking?

Even if Ehrhart's bill for some reason fails in the Republican-dominated Legislature, the courts will soon have their say. Druid Hills has filed suit against the city to overturn the law, and if three previous U.S. Supreme Court decisions are any indication, the golf club will win.

The result: Franklin, in an attempt to uphold a well-intentioned ordinance, may bring about its ruin.

Since her inauguration in 2002, Franklin has shown she knows to stay out of fights she can't win — especially ones that put her at odds with Republican leaders in state government. But in the case of the Druid Hills Golf Club, Franklin's wits and determination may have failed her.

Atlanta's nondiscrimination ordinance requires companies that conduct business with the city to extend to same-sex partners the same rights and privileges that married couples are granted. Even companies that merely purchase liquor licenses from the city are subject to the law.

One of the businesses that purchased a liquor license is the private and ultra-posh Druid Hills Golf Club on Clifton Road. The 93-year-old club has more than 1,100 members. A one-time fee of $40,000 must be paid to join. Members also pay monthly dues exceeding $400, which gives members and their spouses access to the club's 18-hole golf course, 11 tennis courts, fitness room, sauna, swimming pool, and formal dining room.

The golf club does accept openly gay members, and gays can bring their partners to the club. But the partner of a gay member isn't given full membership treatment. He or she must accompany the member to the club — or pay full membership fees.

This policy upset two of the club's gay members, Lee Kyser and Randy New, who filed a complaint with the Atlanta Human Relations Committee. On Jan. 12, 2004, the committee unanimously agreed that the Druid Hills Golf Club was violating city law.

It seemed that the impasse was almost settled when the club made some concessions in October. But negotiations stalled, and Franklin told club President Kent Smith in a Dec. 22 letter that she authorized the city solicitor to go after the club for violating the ordinance.

Why the negotiations broke down is a mystery. Smith, reached by cell phone, declined comment. So did Franklin.

However, a source close to the negotiations says Franklin wanted the club to extend full privileges to the partners of gay members by the end of 2004, period. When the club refused to meet her deadline, Franklin told city attorneys to go after the club, the source says.

On Dec. 28, the mayor, through her spokeswoman, made a statement supporting the source's claims: "I didn't want to rush to a decision. But I made it clear to everyone throughout the course of the year that I was going to make a decision ... by the end of '04."

Perhaps she was pandering to the gay community. Or maybe she was standing up for what she believed was right. After all, only a few weeks earlier, she publicly apologized after Atlanta police tried to shut down the nude revue Naked Boys Singing!

"The hatred and bigotry of the members of the Druid Hills Golf Club towards anyone who isn't like them — straight, white and rich — has now been made clear in this attempt to set civil rights in our city back a generation," says Chuck Bowen, executive director of the state's largest gay rights group, Georgia Equality.

But does the alleged injustice equate to illegal discrimination?

As long as private social groups do not engage in substantial commerce, they are protected by the First Amendment, says Georgia State University law professor Lynn Hogue. That means they can exclude whomever they choose from whatever privileges they want.

"It's clear you can have a private group which could engage in discrimination," Hogue says. "I think the Druid Hills club is in a strong position to win that case.

Hogue adds: "It would have been wise [for Franklin] to say that the law was inapplicable to a private club, and that it just applied to commercial operations — that would have been a much safer approach."

The protections given to private clubs explain why the Augusta National Golf Club can ban women and why the Boy Scouts of America can ban gay scoutmasters. In fact, Ehrhart's bill copies language from the 2000 U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Boy Scouts case. His bill would prevent any government entity in the state from penalizing private social groups that engage in "lawful expressive association." The phrase "lawful expressive association" comes directly from the Supreme Court ruling.

If Ehrhart's bill passes, Hogue says, "It would be a total loss for the mayor." But Franklin and the gay community will be lucky if the General Assembly stops at exempting only private groups. With Republicans now controlling both chambers of the General Assembly and the governor's office, it's doubtful that the conflict over the rights of gays will end at the Druid Hills Golf Club. What's more, the wide margin by which the anti-gay marriage amendment passed (76 percent of Georgia voters favored it) shows anti-gay sentiments aren't exclusive to the Gold Dome.

All of which boils down to the question: Are tee times and pool privileges worth the gamble of giving the courts or Legislature the chance to overturn Atlanta's anti-discrimination law?

Staff writer Scott Henry contributed to this story.