ANNAPOLIS -- The City Council narrowly voted last night not to challenge a recent court ruling that overturned a landmark 1990 ordinance that denied liquor licenses to private clubs that discriminate.
The action sparked sharp exchanges between supporters and opponents of an appeal. Two of the council's three female members and both black members decried the 5-4 vote as a setback for civil rights in Annapolis.
The ruling last month by Anne Arundel Circuit Court Judge James C. Cawood allows an all-male Elks lodge to continue serving alcohol at social functions.
Although the vote came during a closed executive session, the sharp exchanges came during the council's regular public session when two community leaders who support an appeal raised the issue.
"I think bigotry has won a temporary victory tonight in our city," said Alderman Carl O. Snowden, who helped usher the bill into law amid controversy two years ago. Mr. Snowden, a Democrat who represents the 5th Ward, said that other advocacy groups might appeal the ruling.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which supported the law, is looking into an appeal, Mr. Snowden said.
A court challenge of the ruling also is supported by the Maryland Human Relations Commission, which offered to assist the city with legal aid and, if permitted by the court, as a party to an appeal.
"All the focus has been on one organization," said Alderman John Hammond, a 1st Ward Republican and opponent of an appeal, referring to the Elks Lodge. "I think this is an effort to use the power of a municipal authority to penalize one group. . . ."
When the law passed in 1990, Annapolis became the first state jurisdiction to pass a law that denied liquor licenses to clubs whose bylaws discriminate on the basis of race, gender or ethnic background.
In his April 16 ruling, Judge Cawood agreed with lawyers for the Elks lodge, who argued that the state's public accommodations law exempts private clubs from government regulation.
Judge Cawood's ruling allowed Lodge 622 of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks to renew its liquor license, which was about to expire.
Alderman Ruth Gray, a Republican representing the 4th Ward, said the ordinance prompted the Annapolis Yacht Club to admit women and its first black member, the late Dr. Aris T. Allen.
"The Elks have been in existence for 92 years, and no black man could ever become a member of the Elks club," Mr. Snowden said. "Dr. Aris Allen could not become a member of the Elks Club." He later said that Dr. Allen "would turn over in his grave" at the vote.
Mayor Hopkins repeated several times that he was "not a bigot" by siding with the majority and insisted the city was not the right forum to test the state's public accommodations law.
"I'm asking that this not be judged the way it's going to be judged," he said. "I'm asking that this be understood."