Rotary International v. Rotary Club of Duarte, 481 U.S. 537 (1987)

This case illustrates how the Supreme Court weighs the First Amendment right to private association and expressive association against government antidiscrimination laws that are asserted to interfere with those rights. The approach is to give strong weight to the interests forwarded by the government regulation, then to determine if enforcing the regulation will infringe significantly the expressive association rights of the challenging group. If it will, the regulation violates the First Amendment. If not, the regulation stands.

In this case, Rotary International (RI), a worldwide organization of service clubs, terminated the membership of its Duarte, California club because that club, contrary to RI policy of that time, had admitted women members. The club sued RI, claiming the termination violated California’s Civil Rights Act.

The Court first determined that this was not a matter involving private association rights. As to expressive association, it found that admitting women would not infringe significantly the associational rights of club members. It would not change club goals of humanitarian service, goodwill, and ethical professional behavior. Moreover, women were allowed to attend meetings, give speeches, and otherwise participate in club activities, although not as full members. Therefore, any infringement of associational rights would be very minor and easily outweighed by the state’s compelling interest in eliminating discrimination against women. The Court also noted that Rotary Club meetings were public events, often attended by significant numbers of nonmembers and covered by the media. The activities of the club were more public than private.

The decision in this case is similar to that rendered by the Court earlier in Roberts v. U.S. Jaycees (1984), and cited in Duarte. However, applying the rule of those cases will not always result in victory for a public accommodations statute. Notably, in Boy Scouts of America v. Dale (2000), the Court, by five to four, held that applying New Jersey’s equal accommodations law to the Boy Scouts, and thereby compelling them to admit open homosexuals, was an unconstitutional infringement of the First Amendment right to expressive association. A rule intended to eliminate discrimination against a particular group, would place a ‘‘serious burden’’ on the right of expressive association, the First Amendment outweighs the public accommodation law. The dissenting judges did not disagree with that; they believed that the Boy Scouts had not provided sufficient evidence to show that the organization’s principles would be significantly infringed by requiring open homosexuals to be admitted to membership.

Thus, the right to expressive association trumps equal accommodations laws—but only when enforcing those laws significantly infringes the basic principles of the association in question.

GERALD J. THAIN

Cases and Statutes Cited

See also Boy Scouts of America v. Dale, 530 U.S. 640 (2000); Freedom of Association; Roberts v. United States Jaycees, 468 U.S. 609 (1984)

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