What’s a family? As country clubs wrestle with the question of golf rights for `significant others,’ a lawsuit by gay partners could have far-reaching consequences
The bedrock of country club life in America is marriage and the family. It is the unit upon which club policies are built in every area: membership, voting rights, inheritance, access to the golf course. But lifestyles have changed. How couples live today is vastly different than how they lived when country clubs took form more than a hundred years ago.
Twenty years ago, no country club in the nation would give a member’s steady girlfriend the same rights as a spouse. These days, some clubs have adopted a policy, known typically as “the significant-other rule,” that permits full golf rights, some even permitting a new person to be named on a yearly or less than yearly basis. The force for change has come from long-term members, typically widowers who don’t want to remarry for financial or tax reasons. Or the push comes from single or divorced members who have a steady relationship and want their partners to play golf at the club.
But what if the couple is of the same sex? In a lawsuit believed to be the first of its kind in the nation, a gay couple has asserted discriminatory practices at a country club. “The issue is fear,” says Bill McMahon Sr., chairman of the McMahon Group Inc., a consulting firm for private clubs. “Members believe the gay issue will threaten the fabric of family life. The older generation cannot understand it at all.”
Enter Birgit Koebke, or B., as she is known, a 46-year-old sales and marketing executive. Koebke has been a member at Bernardo Heights Country Club outside San Diego for 16 years. According to a 2001 club survey, the average age at Bernardo Heights, a club with approximately 350 regular members, is 67. The club profile says the “average member” has no children who use the club and does not use the club to entertain socially or for business.
Koebke met Kendall E. French, a 40-year-old director of customer care in the automobile industry, in 1992, six years after joining the club. By 1993 they were living together, sharing a home in San Diego. Koebke and French refer to each other as life partners and are registered as domestic partners in the city of San Diego and in the state of California.
At the heart of the case is the issue of spousal rights. For the past 10 years, French has had to play as a guest at Bernardo Heights, limited to six times a year at $70 per round. Any married member at Bernardo Heights has privileges not only for a spouse but for all children younger than 22 living at home. And in recent years, the club extended free playing privileges to grandchildren.
The Bernardo Heights board for years has refused Koebke’s requests for golf privileges for French. The club’s position is that unlimited spousal golf privileges are only for legally married partners, a requirement that Koebke and French cannot fulfill under California law. The women filed the lawsuit in May 2001, lost the first round in July 2002 and have now appealed. Lambda Legal, the nation’s most prestigious legal organization supporting the civil rights of gay men and women, is handling the appeal.
“The only thing the club seems to be saying is, `We don’t want your kind,’ ” says Lambda’s Jon W. Davidson. “If my client were married to a man, there would be no issue.”
John Shiner, Bernardo Heights’ lead attorney, says: “I can tell you that the club in this situation simply did not treat people differently based on gender or sexual preference, and the court found there was no evidence that it did.”
SINGLE VS. MARRIED
Bernardo Heights has no “single” memberships. Under the club’s bylaws, single members pay the same costs as married members with children. That one membership might have additional players and another not be allowed to have any irritated Koebke and other members, who actively pressed for change. One was Gene Kohler, a retired businessman who moved to San Diego after his wife died. He lived near the first tee and played at the club with his adult son Gary, who lives nearby. Gene, who died in June 2002, was charged the guest fee for his son each time they played. Gary Kohler recalls his father’s complaint: “He would say, `You know, I play with these other people who have memberships that cost no more than mine, yet their wives can play, their sons can play, their grandsons can play as part of their membership rights.’ “
Koebke, joined by approximately 25 club members, mostly widows, sought a bylaw change that would have allowed golf privileges for “significant others,” but members voted down the proposal in 1996. During the next two years, approximately 40 club members, including widows, widowers, divorcees and unmarried men and women, continued to push for change.
The group did its homework, contacting a dozen private clubs in the San Diego area. Most had some kind of privilege for single members. Bernardo Heights Country Club had nothing.
The group submitted yet another letter to the board, but in 1998 the proposal was rejected by the club’s long-range planning committee. Koebke and French pressed on, arguing their case before the Bernardo Heights board. The board was unmoved. It offered French her own membership. But that meant a second initiation fee, then about $25,000, plus $450 in monthly dues and would have French and Koebke paying twice what married couples pay. The couple’s attorney, Paul Kondrick, sent the board a copy of a draft complaint, still seeking to settle out of court. “We couldn’t meet their requirement to be married under California law,” Koebke says, “but we would have settled for guest passes instead of a lawsuit.”
From the outset, Koebke says she met opposition from some of the club’s officers and from Tom Monson, a member who serves as the club’s counsel and is assisting in the case. Monson, who plays golf at Bernardo Heights with his wife and four children, declined to be interviewed for this article. “I went up to him on the putting green about seven years ago,” Koebke says, “and I said, `Tom, how is this fair? You have six people playing under your membership. Why can’t you let the singles and widows have some added benefits?'”
Monson’s legal opinion on the lawsuit came to symbolize the club’s position: The board favors legal marriage between members of the opposite sex. It does so, Monson told the membership, because the club is “a family-oriented organization.” His letter, dated May 16, 2001–five days after the lawsuit was filed against the club–was sent to all members except Koebke.
In July 2002, on a summary-judgment motion, Superior Court Judge Charles R. Hayes found for the club. In a short opinion, he said the club “did not provide different privileges to the plaintiffs than to other unmarried couples.”
In taking the women’s appeal, Lambda’s Davidson says the case is important because it will ask if the state’s Unruh Civil Rights Act, which bars discrimination of any type in business, applies in a case that centers on marital status and sexual orientation. Bernardo Heights Country Club, Davidson says, conducts outside business–weddings and other gatherings–that make it more public than private. Thirteen states have some form of domestic-partnership law. California permits the transfer of property from one partner to another, even without a will, but under Bernardo Heights Country Club bylaws, French cannot inherit Koebke’s equity share in the club.
The case is likely to take at least 18 months before an appeals court rules. Efforts to settle it have failed. Koebke’s latest foursome at Bernardo, two men and a woman, continued to play with her, but eventually each, for personal reasons, resigned from the club. She was now alone.
“We draw strength both from gay and straight friends,” French says. “It is our straight friends who have offered the most support. They listen to our story and say, `You’ve got to be kidding. Fight on.’ “
They will, they say, in a case that may redefine rights at country clubs.
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