TACOMA — The Fraternal Order of Eagles may continue to exclude women from membership, a state Appeals Court has ruled in a case brought by chapters in Tenino and Whidbey Island.
The court said Friday that the state’s law against discrimination makes an exception for fraternal organizations, such as the century-old Eagles, who are 66,000 strong in 106 chapters statewide.
"That stinks," said Gayle Hartman, a female member in Tenino, Thurston County.
"If we didn’t have women members here, it would have had to close down," she said. "We’re a little town, and the men members are getting old."
Hartman was among 54 women to become members. Previously, women had been relegated to an auxiliary, where they were encouraged to work hard but lacked voting rights.
The 1.6 million-member national organization was founded in 1898 to uphold "the principles of liberty, truth, justice and equality." Those interested in joining have to be male, of good moral character, believe in God and be over 21. Communists and those who believe in violently overthrowing the government need not apply.
The Northwest Women’s Law Center in Seattle will ask the state Supreme Court to review the case.
Executive director Lisa Stone said the law exempts fraternal groups that are "distinctly private," but the Eagles admit almost any man, recruit new members widely and are often central to a town’s community life.
"If you’re a woman and you want to be part of the business and social fabric of a small town, you join the Eagles," she said.
John Widell, a Seattle lawyer who represented the national Eagles group, said government shouldn’t be allowed to dictate who can be members of private groups whose main function is socializing.
"This is a First Amendment case," Widell said.
Men-only clauses in veterans and fraternal groups have been loosened in recent years, partly because of a U.S. Supreme Court decision that required the Rotary to admit women. Also forcing change is the aging membership of many groups.
Lions and Kiwanis accepted women starting in 1987; the Elks followed in 1995.
The Eagles agreed to allow women to become members six years ago, but changed their minds in 1998 after a membership vote, Widell said.
The lawsuit was filed in 1999 by the Tenino chapter, nine of its women members, and a Whidbey Island chapter.
Thurston County Superior Court Judge Richard Strophy issued a summary judgment in March 2000, saying Washington law forbade discrimination against women. Friday’s ruling orders Strophy to issue a judgment in favor of the national Eagles organization instead.
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