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Orendorff v. Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks Lodge No. 96 (Challenging gender discrimination at Elks Lodge in Rome, NY)

This case involves a gender discrimination claim against an Elks Lodge in Rome, New York. Grand Lodge of Elks, a national fraternal organization, ordered its chapters to start admitting women in 1995. In 1999, Bonnie Orendorff and three other women applied for membership at Elks Lodge No. 96 in Rome, New York, and each woman was rejected three times. The NYCLU claimed that the Rome Lodge, which had never admitted a woman as a member, is not a distinctly private membership organization but is, by practice, a public accommodation that will allow any man to join but will not admit women. Ms. Orendorff had filed a complaint with the state Division of Human Rights (DHR) arguing that the refusal to admit women was a violation of New York’s Public Accommodations Law.

The state Division of Human Rights dismissed the complaint on the ground that the Elks are exempt from the Public Accommodations Law because it is a benevolent organization. This exemption provides, in essence, that an organization will be deemed to be “distinctly private,” even if it is not, so long as it qualifies as a benevolent organization. The NYCLU and the ACLU Women’s Rights Project filed an Article 78 proceeding arguing that the Elks’ policy of excluding women was arbitrary and capricious and that the exemption of the Elks from the anti-discrimination provisions of the New York Executive Law §292 was itself irrational and unconstitutional in violation of the Equal Protection principles. The Supreme Court held that the DHR improperly dismissed Orendorff’s complaint and did not accurately advise her of the correct determination and of her legal rights and remanded the matter to the DHR to dismiss the matter in a manner that will permit Ms. Orendorff to pursue her claims in state court. The Elks requested a reconsideration of the matter.

On July 3, 2003, the Court affirmed its previous decision, and the DHR subsequently filed an appeal. On Feb. 20, 2003, the Rome Elks Lodge voted to admit three women, but not Bonnie Orendorff, to its organization. The parties have since reached a settlement in which the Elks Lodge has agreed to admit women on the same basis as men, and Bonnie Orendorff has agreed to withdraw her own application for membership. 

State Supreme Court, Oneida County, Index No. 01-01812 (direct) 

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