PHILADELPHIA – In the wake of allegations that the Valley Swim Club, a private membership club, sent away dozens of children from the Creative Steps Day Camp because they are African American, the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania explained, in response to media inquiries, that the Valley Swim Club is not exempt from anti-discrimination laws as a "private club."
"The confusion comes from our everyday use of the term ‘private club,’" explained ACLU staff attorney Mary Catherine Roper. "Many people understand a ‘private club’ to be one that only members and their guests can use, but the phrase has a much more specific meaning under the civil rights laws." To the ACLU’s knowledge, the Valley Swim Club has not claimed that it is a "private club" allowed to discriminate under the civil rights laws.
Under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, all persons are entitled to "the full and equal enjoyment of … any place of public accommodation ... without discrimination or segregation on the ground of race...." But this requirement of non-discrimination does not apply to "a private club or other establishment not in fact open to the public". The Pennsylvania Human Relations Act, which also prohibits discrimination in "public accommodations," has a similar exemption for “accommodations which are in their nature distinctly private”.
Following the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1965, dozens of businesses and facilities – including swimming pools – tried to argue that they were "private clubs" so that they could exclude African Americans. The courts quickly developed a test to distinguish between truly "private" organizations and those that only claimed to be. Very few facilities qualified as truly "private."
In order to be exempt from the civil rights laws, a "private" club must truly reserve its facilities for members, and must have genuinely exclusive membership criteria – a club that will admit anyone who is not African American does not qualify. Courts deciding whether a club is “private” in this sense will consider the history and purpose of the club (including whether it was created to circumvent desegregation), the club advertises for members, it is directly controlled by its members and operated solely for their benefit, and the club is operated for profit.
Membership in the Valley Swim Club is generally open to the public. Therefore, it is a "public accommodation" and not a "private club" under federal and state civil rights laws.
Roper lamented the Swim Club's actions toward the day camp: "Not far from where President Barack Obama gave his now-famous speech on race a year ago, we have a stark reminder that racial discrimination persists in our society. The ACLU encourages the Creative Steps Day Camp leaders to teach their campers an important civics lesson by standing for the young people's rights."