There is controversy swirling around the Towson Elks Club these days, enveloping the watering hole of choice for the county's judicial elite and fueling gossip throughout the courthouse.
The hullabaloo seems to have erupted Tuesday, when the Towson Lodge No. 469 Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks - a club that boasts a members list that includes judges, lawyers, politicians and, according to his online resume, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. - took the unusual step of rejecting an entire group of applicants in a move many say was intended to keep women from joining the club.
Since then, Baltimore County Circuit Judge John O. Hennegan, whose sister was among those rejected, has left the club, writing in a resignation letter that judicial ethics laws prohibit him from remaining a member.
"Since there seems to be a segment of the membership who have successfully and systematically excluded women from the opportunity to become members of the Towson Elks, in order to avoid an appearance of impropriety, I must respectfully resign my membership," he wrote.
Susan Goering, executive director of the Maryland chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, called the club's lack of female members "outrageous." Del. Adrienne A. Jones, a Baltimore County Democrat, said she was stunned when she learned of the club's move.
"What year is this?" she asked incredulously. "Nineteen forty-eight?"
Ehrlich's staff did not know whether he was still a member of the club, said the governor's spokesman, Henry Fawell. Fawell said he would withhold comment until Ehrlich's membership status was clear.
To join the Elks, potential members have to be at least 21 years old, sponsored by a current member, be a U.S. citizen and say they believe in God.
Hennegan and his father, retired Circuit Judge A. Owen Hennegan, who is also a member of the Towson Elks, said they did not know of any other recent case in which potential members were rejected.
Neither did they know of another time when women applied for full-member status. "I'm very dismayed over it," said the elder Hennegan. "In this day and age, I just can't imagine men being so narrow-minded."
But other members say the controversy is a molehill-turned-mountain, that available parking spaces have more to do with the applicants' rejections than gender, and that the club is not discriminatory.
They point to the one female member - an Elk's widow some say was made a member so the club could help support her in a nursing home - and to the Ladies Auxiliary, a group of women related to male members.
Some say that a small minority in the club are opposed to female members and that they were able to assert disproportionate influence on the vote.
Gerry Mastropieri, the club's exalted ruler, said the matter was confidential.
Of the more than 1,000 Towson Elks, only a couple hundred typically show up to meetings and vote, members said. Two-thirds of those present must approve an applicant. Carol Murray, Hennegan's sister whose application was rejected, said she had heard that 60 percent of the members voted to admit all 15 applicants, at least five of whom were female.
"I can tell you this much, there's no doubt in my mind that there will be women who will be full-time active members in the near future," said Baltimore County Circuit Judge Thomas J. Bollinger Sr., a long-time club member.
Bollinger said that he did not see "invidious discrimination" on the part of the Towson Elks.
He said that he and other judges who belonged to the club - including the Hennegans, Baltimore County Circuit Judge John G. Turnbull II, retired Baltimore County Circuit Judge Robert E. Cahill Sr., and retired Baltimore County Circuit Judge Edward A. DeWaters Jr. - resigned their memberships in the early 1990s in an effort to force the national Elks organization to change its bylaws to allow women as members.
In 1995, the national Grand Lodge of Elks amended its constitution to admit women, and the judges resumed their memberships.
Since then, most, if not all, other Elks lodges in Maryland have admitted women members, according to their Web sites. Women have been "exalted rulers" of lodges in Annapolis, Severna Park, Bowie and Laurel.
The Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks was founded by a group of New York actors and musicians in 1868, according to the Elks' Web site.
The original group had been gathering regularly on Sundays, when blue laws kept the city's bars closed. When one of the friends died, the group decided it needed a structure to help his family and others in need. Two months later, it held its first official ceremony, and the group voted 8-7 to have the elk as its symbol instead of the buffalo.
Since then, the Order of Elks has grown into a huge fraternal and charitable organization, with more than 1.1 million members. According to its records, it has given out hundreds of millions of dollars in charity.
It has also rankled civil rights activists, who say the group has traditionally excluded women and minorities.
In Maryland, it is not illegal for private clubs to exclude anyone they want, unless that person can prove the club is a "public accommodation." And that can be an onerous task, said Nevett Steele Jr., a Frederick attorney who worked in the early 1990s on an ultimately unsuccessful bill that would have prohibited clubs that discriminate from attaining liquor licenses.
Murray, Hennegan's sister, said she had no idea what she was stepping into. She said she did not know her application would cause controversy and said she had figured there were already female members of the Towson Elks.
Since she started working in Towson some years ago, Murray has met her father and brother regularly for lunch at the Pennsylvania Avenue club housed in a white Dutch Colonial with a long awning and expansive deck. At some point, she decided it would be convenient if she had her own membership.
"I thought I was old enough now to go in there without my father or brother taking me," the 59-year-old said with a laugh.
So her father sponsored her for membership, and her brother sponsored one of her longtime female friends. Then, she said, attitudes turned ugly.
She said she first thought the grumbling was from a powerless minority at the club.
"We really thought it was a tempest in a teapot," she said. "It was amusing at first that there were a certain number of older members who did not realize the 20th or 21st century had arrived."
She was shocked when she heard about the vote. "I know in the scheme of things it's a small blip," she said. "But it's the principle of it, it's just repugnant.
"It's the theater of the absurd," she continued. "I mean, it's Towson. It's Maryland. It should be part of the world that received notice about equality."
An article in Saturday's editions about the Towson Elks Club incorrectly stated that the club's one female member was a widow and that she joined to get financial support from the club.The Sun regrets the errors.