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How Is Augusta National's No-Women Membership Policy Legal?

By Andrew Chow, Esq. | Last updated on

The Masters golf tournament tees off today with much anticipation: Many are waiting to see if the Augusta National Golf Club will offer a green jacket -- and membership -- to a woman, for the first time ever.

Augusta National opened as a men's golf club in 1933. The club has never granted membership to a woman, though women are allowed to play on its golf course, CBS News reports.

Activists are taking a swing at the issue again, as Augusta faces a precedent-setting dilemma. But Augusta's men-only policy is apparently legal, thanks to its status as a private club.

Augusta National's membership dilemma involves IBM, a longtime sponsor of the Master's tournament, and the company's new female CEO Virginia Rometty.

Traditionally, IBM's CEOs have all become members of Augusta National, according to CBS. But Rometty has yet to be invited to become a member, and it's not certain she will be.

For those wondering how Augusta's no-women membership policy can be legal, the answer lies in its status as a private club.

Civil rights laws that prohibit discrimination in employment and public accommodations generally do not apply to private clubs, which enjoy a freedom to associate with members of their own choosing. Clubs are also free to express themselves however they wish.

The U.S. Supreme Court underscored a private club's freedoms of expression and association in a 2000 case, Boy Scouts v. Dale, which upheld the Scouts' dismissal of a gay assistant scoutmaster.

Forcing a private club to admit someone who may interfere with its "expressive activity" impairs a private club's First Amendment rights, the Supreme Court held. Lower courts have also upheld the Boy Scouts' denial of girls into the group.

As for Augusta, the club also used to bar blacks from membership, until 1990, the Los Angeles Times reports.

Augusta National's chairman has said there's "no specific timetable" for admitting women, and there are currently no lawsuits challenging the policy. Whether IBM's Virginia Rometty will finally shatter the private golf club's glass ceiling remains to be seen.

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