House Resolution on Augusta National Called 'Publicity Stunt'

July 7, 2008 - 8:04 PM

(CNSNews.com) - The debate over Augusta National Golf Club's male-only membership policy, which started with a 200-word letter to the club's chairman last June, has made its way to Congress.

A resolution introduced by two House Democrats would condemn congressmen, federal judges and presidential appointees who belong to organizations or private clubs like Augusta National that have gender-based membership policies.

But as the resolution was being introduced Monday, some supporters of the embattled golf club said it was only the latest "publicity stunt" by Martha Burk, chairwoman of National Council of Women's Organizations.

"Everyone knows that's not going to go anywhere at all," said Todd Manzi, who runs the website TheBurkStopsHere.com. "Everyone knows it is a publicity stunt for Martha Burk to bring more attention to the fact that she can cause a lot of havoc. If it's Martha Burk's issue, you've got to pay attention."

Ron Pontiff, who created the group Golfers For A Real Cause, had equally harsh words about Burk. He said the two Democrat sponsors and 13 co-sponsors were wasting everyone's time by taking up the issue.

"Just because it's not morally correct to some people or politically correct to some people does not mean that our congress-people or our senators or whoever should be spending taxpayers' money to pass a stupid resolution that says government employees cannot play at golf courses like Augusta National," Pontiff said.

The non-binding resolution, titled "Fair Play: Equal Access in Club Membership," urges congressmen and others not to belong to a "club that discriminates on the basis of sex or race." U.S. Reps. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) and John Lewis (D-Ga.) are sponsoring the resolution. It has 13 co-sponsors, including Rep. Richard Gephardt, a Democrat presidential candidate.

"Those at the highest echelons of government should not participate in clubs that discriminate against women and minorities," Maloney said. "Exclusive clubs like Augusta National and Burning Tree provide business and professional networking opportunities to their members. By discriminating against women, clubs like Augusta National deny them equal access to those avenues of advancement."

Maloney expressed optimism that the resolution would be adopted, even by the Republican-controlled House. Jane E. Smith, chief executive officer of Business and Professional Women/USA, promised to lobby members of Congress starting immediately.

The potential real-life impact of the resolution is greatly unknown, its supporters acknowledged. Burk cited only two people to whom it would apply - Rep. Amory Houghton (R-N.Y.) and William S. Farish, ambassador to the United Kingdom. Both are members of Augusta National. Treasury Secretary John Snow resigned his membership prior to his appointment.

Maloney named only two other members of Congress it would affect. She said Sens. Don Nickles (R-Okla.) and John Warner (R-Va.) belong to the Burning Tree Club in Bethesda, Md., another golf course with a male-only membership policy.

Most of the women's criticism was directed at Augusta National, which hosts the Masters tournament that starts April 10. But they said their resolution condemns membership in all clubs that discriminate based on race and sex, even organizations with female-only membership policies.

"The purpose of this resolution is that if members of Congress belong [to these clubs], they should resign, just as Secretary Snow did when he was put forward as a cabinet member," Maloney said.

The resolution was met with skepticism from officials at Augusta National, which has operated for years under the policy without any resistance until Burk's letter to club chairman William "Hootie" Johnson last summer. The golf club allows women to play on its course, but they are unable to belong.

"Members of Congress and Americans in general belong to an incredible variety of single-gender clubs, groups and schools," Augusta National spokesman Glenn Greenspan said. "These groups are a valid and beneficial part of American life and to single out Augusta National is exactly what it sounds like, a double-standard."

This week Burk heads to Georgia for a hearing in a lawsuit she filed against the city of Augusta over a protest she is planning for April 12. She said her protest would go on, unless the Masters was canceled because of the war in Iraq.

Burk ignited a controversy just last week with remarks she made about female soldiers fighting to liberate Iraq, but facing discrimination at U.S. golf courses. She stood by her remarks, however, insisting they were taken out of context.

"It's a darn shame that in this day and time women are fighting and defending democratic values overseas and they are still experiencing discrimination at home," she said Monday.

She and Maloney also defended their pursuit of Augusta National during wartime. Burk said if tournament organizers think it is appropriate to go forward with their plans, she would keep pressing the issue.

But Burk's allies are not the only ones gearing up for battle in two weeks. Manzi and Pontiff, who have steadfastly defended the golf club, are also heading to Augusta, Ga., to show their allegiance. They said they hope like-minded individuals will join their cause.

E-mail a news tip to Robert B. Bluey.

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