Women-Only Clubs Face Fight

SANTA ROSA, CA — California may have a fight on its hands soon when it comes to single sex health clubs. The state has filed suit against two women-only facilities charging that they violated the civil rights of an individual based on gender. However, the International Health, Racquetball and Sportsclub Association (IHRSA) plans to lobby the California legislature in 2005 to change the law, according to Kevin Buckley, deputy director of government relations for IHRSA.

Elan Health and Fitness Center in Petaluma, CA, and Body Central in Santa Rosa, CA, are being sued by the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing after complaints by Phillip Kottle, who said that he was refused membership to both women-only facilities because of his gender. The state said that the clubs deprived Kottle of his civil rights in public accommodations under the Unruh Civil Rights Act.

“We are following these cases very closely,” said Buckley. “We plan on fighting to change state law — as soon as the legislature reconvenes in 2005 — to exempt single-sex facilities from the Unruh Act. California is the only state at the moment that we know we will be pushing for this law change in 2005, but we are prepared to fight it wherever it is necessary.”

Similar lawsuits have been filed in the past in other states, but most have been turned away by the courts, according to IHRSA. Several states actually already have laws that allow single-sex health clubs: Alaska, Colorado, Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Tennessee and Wisconsin.

The two clubs can either have their case heard by the Department of Fair Housing and Employment Commission or they can take it to civil court. Joyce Brown and LaRaye Houston, the mother and daughter who own Elan Health, have decided to take the case to civil court. A court date has yet to be set.

At this time, the Body Central case will be heard before the commission, said Paul Ramsey, chief counsel for the Department of Fair Housing.

Shannon Hartnett, owner of Body Central, has been battling Kottle for two years, initially refusing him membership, but then remodeling her locker room to accommodate him. However, he turned down her later membership offer, she said. Hartnett has already spent $25,000 fighting the case and redoing her locker room.

“In this day and age, women can't go out for a run by themselves,” said Houston. “We are not discriminating against his civil rights. We are offering women a safe and supportive place to work out.”

Houston is especially hurt that the lawsuit is coming from the state, which should be upholding the rights of women, she said.

IHRSA's position is that women-only health clubs should be allowed.

“Women-only health clubs should be allowed to exclude men from membership and employment because there is a legitimate gender-based privacy interest that needs to be protected, and there is no overriding public policy that necessitates the inclusion of men in these clubs,” said Buckley. “The privacy issue stems from the unique setting of a health club. Women-only health clubs are not social in nature and are not places where business networking takes place. There is no economic harm in excluding men from women-only health clubs.”

Hartnett and Houston's members are being supportive, but they are concerned about possible changes to their workout facilities.

“It will change everything for women in California if this happens,” said Houston. “A lot of women do not feel comfortable in a gym. A woman's club offers women who feel that way an opportunity to work out.” She also expressed fears that if suits like this one are successful, it will set a precedent for more “frivolous lawsuits.”

However, Ramsey said that the cases are fact specific and whether the clubs would have to open up to all men or just Kottle would depend on what the judge or commission orders. An award of damages could occur in both cases, he said.

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