“Benevolent” Elks Discriminate Against Sweet Lady

Billie Sieg is a sweet 80-year-old lady:

Billie is a friendly person; someone recently described her as the mascot of her neighborhood.

But there was nowhere for her to hang out.

So Billie decided to join the Elks club. She’d been there with friends who are members. “It’s a very nice facility. I wanted the contacts, and a dining room and bar where I could take guests. I remember going there to a Valentine’s dance, and it was lots of fun.”

Some friends sponsored her membership in the club and she was granted an interview. It was during that interview when she learned she wasn’t welcome in the organization:

[The interview] was going fine, Billie says, until the man asking the questions asked if Billie believes in God.

Now, Billie knows the Benevolent & Protective Order of Elks requires that its members believe in God. It’s right on their Web site (www.elks.org).

Two women friends of Billie’s had urged her to lie if she was asked about her belief in God.

When the man asked if Billie believed in God, “should I have said yes and avoided problems? How do I know what the term ‘God’ means to them?”

Billie said she did not believe in God. “And his whole attitude changed,” she says. Days later Billie received a letter denying her membership in the Elks club. She had been hoping the requirement to believe in God was “a throwback,” something that wouldn’t be a factor in today’s membership decisions.

She was wrong.

Of course the Elks are a private group, but Billie figured they could see past the discrimination:

The thing that really upsets Billie is the other news delivered in the letter, which was written by the lodge secretary in Brookings, Charles W. Sallander. “You are not permitted access to the lodge facility for any Elks social function, even as a guest.”

Even as a guest.

This means Billie will no longer be able to join friends who are Elks members for a steak dinner or an evening of dancing at the lodge.

The Elks have a history of bigotry. Though they’ve eventually found their way back on the right path a couple times:

Thirty years ago, millions of Americans were “excluded” from the Elks. By national charter, African Americans couldn’t be “brothers” in the BPOE until the 1970s. Women weren’t allowed to be Elks until the mid-1990s.

Atheists are still banned.

“We are a private organization, and we do have certain rights of membership,” Charles says, “and one of those is you have to believe in God. Or if you’re not an American citizen, then you’re not welcome to join us. We’re not saying we’re going to exclude you from our friendship, we’re just going to exclude you from our membership.”

Billie could file a lawsuit in Oregon. She has a chance of winning. A woman won a suit against a fraternal order over sex discrimination only a few years ago.

But she’s probably not going to. She just feels bad that she won’t be allowed to see her friends at lodge functions again.

Still, she’s glad she didn’t lie. “I’m not ashamed of my atheism,” she says. “In fact, I think people need to know we don’t have two heads. We’re good people. We have ethics.”

We know right from wrong, Billie says. And this feels wrong. “I don’t want to cause them trouble. I just want them to rethink this regulation, because it’s not fair. And it will never be changed unless somebody makes it public.”

When I graduated from high school, I got a scholarship from the Elks. A few thousand dollars. It paid for a good chunk of my first couple years of college. I didn’t know (or care) much about their beliefs at the time. And they never asked about mine.

After the money ran out, we all parted ways.

They didn’t care about my atheism then. Granted I wasn’t active about it at the time, but neither is Billie now. She just wants to go about her own business.

I can’t understand how her wanting to dance or eat with lodge members is such a big problem for them.

Maybe if she just asked them for money…


[tags]atheist, atheism, discrimination, Margie Boule[/tags]

  • JimboB

    I respect their right to deny membership to an atheist (although I personally disagree with it), but the fact that they deny her access to the lodge “even as a guest” really disgusts me.

    Grrrr.

  • http://skepticsplay.blogspot.com/ miller

    Billie could file a lawsuit in Oregon. She has a chance of winning.

    Isn’t it legal for private organizations to discriminate? I’m not clear on the law here.

  • Ben

    Isn’t it legal for private organizations to discriminate? I’m not clear on the law here.

    There’s some tension between the right to freedom of association (the ability to discriminate) and public accomodations. For example, a restaurant can be a private organization but it would be against the law for them to deny service to black people. IANAL, though.

    http://www.saldef.org/content.aspx?a=1461&title=Know%20Your%20Rights–Public%20Accommodation

    What is Public Accommodation?

    A private entity that owns or operates a place of business to which the public is invited. The place where the entity conducts its activities is referred to as the place of public accommodation. Typical examples of such places include restaurants, retail stores, hotels and doctors’ offices.

    The first lawsuit against the Boy Scouts of Some of America went against them on this consideration, IIRC, but was turned over on appeal.

  • Lysander

    Underlying the issue is the question of why atheists are excluded. Is someone worried atheism is contagious? Or dangerous?

    I can see the ad now:

    [queue some beautiful setting somewhere you wish you were] “Do you feel like you’re missing something in life? Or do you love life, and simply want to make it even better? If so, non-prescription CredereDeumEsse (powracrystcompelzya HCl) may be able to help….” [cut to fun & relaxation clip] “Only your theologian can tell you if non-prescription CDE is right for you. Why wait? Speak with yours today.” Narrator: “Side effects may include nondisillusion and tithes. In rare cases, hemorrhoids occured in adolescent males. These claims have not been verified by the FDA, FFRF, or any sane person.”

    Er, back to the issue at hand…

    Billie has not threatened a lawsuit. She actually feels bad for her friends who sponsored her application . . . . Still, she’s glad she didn’t lie. “I’m not ashamed of my atheism,” she says. “In fact, I think people need to know we don’t have two heads. We’re good people. We have ethics.” We know right from wrong, Billie says. And this feels wrong. “I don’t want to cause them trouble.

    A lot of “us” are friendly! In my experience, it’s the norm.

    “. . . the Elks should get rid of the required belief in God.

    But if they do that, they’ll have to change their name to the Benevolent & Protective Suggestion of Elks.” Wait. I’ve got a better idea! Let’s form a new club and call it the Benevolent & Protective Order of Wapiti! B-POW!

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  • valhar2000

    Who wants to join that piece of shit?

  • Siamang

    That’s religion for you. It’s all about “we know what you should think better than you do.”

  • Karen

    Wow, what a pioneer! An 80-year-old female atheist – she defies the stereotypes, doesn’t she? I’m proud of her. :-)

    Y’know I often see articles lamenting how these older community organizations are dying out. And then you see things like this that show how bigoted and discriminatory they are, and how slow they’ve been to change even on racial and gender policies.

    If that’s what they are like, they deserve to die out.

  • http://skeptigator.com Skeptigator

    So out of one end they say,

    “We’re not saying we’re going to exclude you from our friendship, we’re just going to exclude you from our membership”

    ,and out the other they tell an 80-year-old woman that she can’t even be a guest? Umm… clearly theists have a different definition of friend.

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  • Johnny M.

    My Mom belongs to the Elks and uses their swimming pool and when she mentioned today that membership was only $75 a year I couldn’t wait to join. What an incredible deal!! But now I learn that they won’t even take my money, just because I read “The God Delusion” and went from agnostic to atheist?? ELKs, you should be ashamed of how childish and uncharitable that rule is.

    And Prof. Richard Dawkins, you owe me a pool membership. :’)

  • David A Greaves, Past Exalted Ruler

    As a Past Exalted Ruler, and an active member of an Elks lodge in CT I feel complied to add my 2 cents. The Elks are a GOD based organization. We pledge to the flag of the USA “one nation under GOD” We pray to GOD during meetings for guidence in all our deliberations. We sing “GOD bless America” after every meeting. We reference GOD in a great many things we do. I respect every persons religious beliefs (or non beliefs) that is our right as American Citzens. Was this paticual lodge wrong for banning Billie from all events..in my opinion yes. I question though, if you are so against GOD, why would you even attempt to join a group that cherishes him so? Churches are private organizations. Why not join them? They hold events, some have swimming facilities ect. I applaud Billie for doing what she thought was right as to her beliefs , but don;t see why people here consider Elks so narrow minded because we all don’t agree on the same beliefs.

  • http://afriendlyatheist Lady

    I just found this link today, because I was ask to join the Elks lodge last week ! hey I had some questions about who could join because of being black and not knowing anyone black ever being a member so I got on line to look up the Elks lodge memberships to see if there were black members, to my surprise yes! Wow!! but now! I find out that someone who is Atheist was denied membership
    My point is that the person who ask me to join doesn’t believe in the (Christian God )when question about it she told the elks member that their believe is in just a GOD, that was except by the board members, am a little confused about the GOD parts. So any God believers can join???


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