Segregated clubs in Kentucky raise issues for private business, civil rights law

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LOUISVILLE -- The push to integrate Kentucky's private social clubs, whose members clung to old notions of Southern white privilege for decades after the end of Jim Crow, began in the early 1990s with a lone, quiet protest: At lunchtime on days when the weather was nice, a black preacher and civil rights activist named Louis Coleman would put up a folding card table in front of one of the many unofficially restricted clubs here; set it with a tablecloth, china and candles; and dine on buns and lemonade.

Coleman died in 2008, but his efforts drew the attention of the state's Commission on Human Rights, which opened a decade-long inquiry into Kentucky's country clubs and men-only dining societies.

A 2004 state Supreme Court ruling pushed Kentucky's remaining segregated clubs to stop the discrimination or risk losing tax deductions. Still, at least one club held out until late last year.

But the idea that the government has no right to interfere with membership practices of private businesses and clubs is still prevalent enough here that it has become a point of controversy in this year's U.S. Senate race in the state. Republican Party nominee Rand Paul caused a stir last month when he said he believed private businesses should not be forced to abide by civil rights laws.

Republican Party leaders wanted nothing to do with his comments, and Paul soon backed down, saying he supports the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and would not want it to be repealed. But some in Kentucky welcomed his remarks. For many years, Kentuckians who belong to the state's most exclusive clubs have made the same argument that got Paul into trouble. Two decades after prominent country clubs in many other states began to accept their first black members, some here remained segregated, said Gerald Smith, director of African American studies at the University of Kentucky.

It is that social atmosphere that allowed Paul to question an area of civil rights law that most politicians consider beyond debate, Smith said. "The things that we are highlighting as though they are newsworthy are no longer news in a whole lot of places. We are still dealing with 'first' stuff."...

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