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Court hears Eagles' appeal

Two Washington Eagles clubs, one on South Whidbey, may be close to abolishing the men-only rule held by one of the nation's oldest fraternal orders.

Late last month, an attorney suing on behalf of Eagle's aeries on South Whidbey and in Tenino argued before the Washington Supreme Court a case that could open membership in Eagles clubs around the state by next year.

The case, which started in Thurston County Superior Court in 1999, has not been straightforward. In 1995 the state's Grand Aerie -- the ruling body for the club in Washington -- permitted its 106 Eagles clubs to begin accepting women as full voting members. That permission -- which was expressed in official club legislation under the title "Opinion 750" -- was revoked in 1998, an action that sparked a lawsuit by the South Whidbey and Tenino clubs.

Annie Carson, a member of the South Whidbey club, said that even though the 104-year-old club has allowed women to participate in activities since it established a ladies auxiliary in 1952, without full membership for women, local clubs like South Whidbey face an uncertain future.

Prior to allowing women to join as members, the South Whidbey club was up to $16,000 in debt, Carson said.

After about 30 women joined the club as full members, they helped erase that debt and bring the club back to profitability.

"It was really through the women," Carson said.

The lawsuit began in 1999, after the Grand Aerie made it clear in its rules and in visits to individual clubs that having women as members was no longer a possibility. Argued by attorney Rosemary Daszkiewitz, who works through the nonprofit Northwest Women's Law Center, the case got a promising start for the plaintiffs. In a summary judgement, Thurston County Superior Court Judge Thomas Strophy ruled that women should be admitted as members of the state's Eagle's Clubs.

An appeal by the grand aerie at the state level overturned Strophy in 2000, but this year, Daszkiewitz got the ear of the state Supreme Court. State justices heard the case June 27.

Daszkiewitz said the case has gone this far because of a group of traditionalists at the state level.

"It's about an old guard that has had a decision go against them," she said.

Though a decision from the high court won't come until February, Daszkiewitz said, Eagles clubs around the nation are starting analogous cases of their own. A superior court in Oregon will hear a case for women's membership in the organization on July 31, and another case in Arizona may not be far behind.

"I think we're going to see this issue a lot," Daszkiewitz said.

For the two clubs pursuing the lawsuit, allowing women in as members could help secure their future. During the past five years, the Tenino aerie has attracted 450 new members, according to court documents. At the South Whidbey aerie, about 15 percent of the membership is female.

Carson credits the Tenino club with making the gains for women possible. She said that club's members have been the driving force behind the lawsuit.

"I have to give all the credit to Tenino," she said.

The South Whidbey aerie has not admitted any new women members since the Grand Aerie forbade it in 1998. In fact, according to Carson, about 15 women who were not fully vested as members at the time were rejected from the membership rolls.

The Fraternal Order of Eagles was established in Seattle in 1898. The order currently claims 1.6 million members nationwide and 66,000 in Washington.

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