State liquor regulators went Elk hunting Friday, and before the day was out they had bagged nine liquor licenses.
The Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission voted unanimously Friday to suspend the liquor licenses of nine Elks lodges that remain in violation of the state's Civil Rights Act because they refuse to allow women as members."It will put us out of business, no question," said a member of one Elks lodge. "Liquor generates the money that allows us to operate. Without it, we may as well close our doors."
The license suspensions came after several hours of testimony in which the Elks unsuccessfully argued that none of the nine lodges being targeted had ever discriminated against a woman, even though they admitted their bylaws prohibit women from becoming members.
"I view this as a pre-emptive strike . . . without any complaints from anyone," said Keith Nelson, attorney for the Elks lodges in Ogden, Provo, Price, Cedar City, Moab, Brigham City, Roy, Richfield and Bountiful. "No female applicants have applied, and it's unclear what would happen if they did."
Two other lodges, one in Eureka and the other in Vernal, voluntarily surrendered their licenses several weeks ago.
Three other lodges were spared the liquor suspensions after they cut a deal with the commission. The Elks lodges in Murray and Tooele have both created separate nonprofit entities that will lease a portion of the Elks buildings to operate a private club legally separate from the Elks Club.
The Elks there can become members of the new private clubs, as can women and non-Elks. "Heaven forbid, you could even let a Moose in there," said commission chairman Jerry Fenn.
The Murray club will actually be managed by Lynne Whitt, a woman. Membership in the Elks club does not automatically translate into membership in the private club, and no alcohol will be allowed in the Elks' portion of the buildings. Both facilities will have separate entrances for the Elks meeting rooms and the barroom.
The St. George Elks lodge - which became the focus of the civil rights controversy when it denied membership to Sondra Bennion - also presented a similar proposal to the liquor commission, but was told its plan did not pass legal muster. The commission gave the lodge three weeks to submit an acceptable plan before granting them a separate private club license.
Nelson made numerous requests for additional time to allow the nine other Elks lodges to develop plans similar to those in Murray and Tooele, but the commission rejected those pleas. In fact, commissioners chastised the other Elks clubs for dragging their feet on the issue of complying with a Utah Supreme Court ruling.
That ruling stated that any business or individual holding a state liquor license cannot discriminate based on gender.
Commissioners had offered to extend the Elks' liquor licenses for three more weeks if the Elks would agree to unconditionally surrender their licenses at that point even if their new private club licenses had not been approved. The Elks lodges wanted 60 days and rejected the commission offer.
Their patience worn thin, the commission then voted to suspend the licenses of the nine Elks clubs, effective immediately.
By suspending the licenses indefinitely instead of revoking them,Nelson told the several dozen Elks in attendance that the state was actually "holding out a slight olive branch." But he added they had better get their new non-discriminatory private clubs organized, "and you better damn well hurry."
The clubs in Tooele and Murray have already begun selling memberships, including many to women. The commission approved the liquor licenses for "Joint Venture," a private club that will operate on the main floor of the Elks building in Tooele, and "Club Wayfarer," which will share the main floor of the Elks building in Murray.