The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday upheld the state’s authority to require the exclusive Jonathan Club to publicly renounce discrimination in exchange for allowing the club to improve its beachfront facilities in Santa Monica.
“It’s a part of the process of eliminating this last vestige of institutional bigotry, the country club and the downtown club, that are small enclaves of discrimination,” David A. Lehrer, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, said of the high court’s decision.
The league led a coalition of minority and women’s groups that asked the California Coastal Commission in 1985 to require the Jonathan Club to publicly declare that it does not discriminate as a condition for a permit allowing the club to improve parking lots, paddle tennis courts and other structures on the club’s beachfront property. The commission approved the requirement in a 9-3 vote.
“What this decision does is vindicate the commission’s position that when someone uses public resources, in this case the beach, that there is no room for illegal discrimination. . . ,” said Jack Liebster, spokesman for the Coastal Commission.
The commission is charged with regulating development along the state’s 1,100-mile coastline. The Jonathan Club leases some of the land from the state on which its facilities are located.
“Certainly we’re disappointed in the decision,” said John R. Shiner, general counsel for the private, 3,000-member club, which also maintains a facility in downtown Los Angeles.
“We feel as strongly now as we ever did that the Coastal Commission exceeded its jurisdiction . . . in imposing that kind of condition on the (development) permit that it issued.”
Shiner said the club’s attorneys have not yet had time to decide their next legal move. But others suggested that the Supreme Court’s decision all but forecloses the possibility of further legal appeals.
The Jonathan Club has been long criticized by organizations representing women and minorities for allegedly restricting its membership to white Christian men.
‘Does Not Discriminate’
However, Shiner said, “The club does not in fact discriminate in connection with its membership policies and practices,” adding that nothing in the organization’s bylaws restricts membership on the basis of race, gender or religion.
Shiner said the club challenged the Coastal Commission in court only because its members believe “that administrative bodies like the Coastal Commission simply have no business intruding into the internal affairs of private organizations.”
Technically, the Supreme Court on Tuesday refused the Jonathan Club’s request to reconsider a ruling handed down last January by the California Court of Appeal. In that decision, the appellate court concluded that there was sufficient “entanglement” between club and the state, which acts as a landlord for part of the club’s property, to justify the commission’s action.
“Faced with the possibility of invidious discrimination on public property here, which the club refused to deny, the commission properly avoided placing the state’s power, property and prestige behind the club’s reputed membership policy,” wrote Appellate Justice Arleigh Woods.
The club contends that a Coastal Commission development permit was required only for improvements on land that the club owns outright. Improvements on land leased from the state were exempted from the requirement for a commission permit under an agreement reached with the state several years ago, Shiner said.
However, Liebster said the Coastal Commission has always maintained that permits are required for both the leased and privately owned property.