What is a Private Club, and What Laws Apply to Them?
Private clubs such as yacht clubs, country clubs, and golf clubs have a certain allure. They provide havens for shared interests, a space to enjoy yourself, and a sanctuary for relaxation. However, don’t be fooled by the allure. Private clubs operate within a structured framework of rules and regulations.
In this article, we’ll go over what exactly qualifies as a private club, as well as other frequently asked questions about the laws in place that keep them running smoothly.
How Is a Private Club Defined?
Every state has its own definition of a private club. But generally, a private club is a place to meet and mingle with people of similar interests. The club is private because not just anyone can join or enter. You must be a member. That means you will probably pay dues or membership fees.
What Is a Private Club According to TABC?
According to section 32.01(3) of the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Code, a private club is defined as an organization or association that is not open to the public and is operated exclusively for a social, fraternal, or benevolent purpose. Private clubs in Texas are subject to specific laws and regulations related to the sale, service, and consumption of alcoholic beverages.
Why Do People Join Private Clubs?
People join private clubs for many reasons. A private club can be an excellent place to make business contacts (which helps offset the costs of membership). People may also decide to join for social status and recognition, quality dining, the facilities at the club, and just to have fun.
Keeping the Private Club Private
The right to immunity prevents public authorities from meddling in the business of a private club. As an example, the city can’t interrupt a private club party as long as the party is organized for a legitimate reason (New Year’s Eve party) and the occasion does not cause a breach of the peace (the music is too loud).
What Are the Requirements of a Private Member’s Club?
The requirements of a private member's club can vary depending on the jurisdiction and the specific regulations governing private clubs in that area. However, some common requirements for private member's clubs may include:
Private clubs typically require individuals to become members before they can access the club's facilities and services. The club may have eligibility criteria for membership, such as age restrictions or other qualifications.
Bylaws and Governance
Private clubs often have bylaws or rules and regulations that outline the rights, obligations, and privileges of members, as well as the governance structure of the club. These bylaws may address matters such as membership fees, voting rights, code of conduct, and rules for the use of club facilities.
Private clubs generally limit access to their facilities and services to members and their guests. This distinguishes them from public establishments that are open to the general public.
Membership Dues and Fees
Private clubs typically charge membership dues and may have additional fees for specific services, facilities, or events. The payment of these dues and fees helps support the club's operations and maintenance.
Who Pays for the Service of Alcoholic Beverages in a Private Club?
According to the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission (TABC), only a private club’s members can pay for the service of an alcoholic beverage. That means they’ll have to pick up the tab if they invite any guests.
How Many Guests May a Temporary Member Bring to a Private Club?
According to the Alcoholic Beverage Code, a temporary member may not bring more than three people to the club. They must also remain in their presence the entire time.
Civil Rights Laws in Private Clubs
To preserve their right to privacy and freedom of association, private (members and their guests only) clubs are exempted from civil rights law. In other words, if your club fully complies with the definition of a private club, then the club is under no obligation to accept members based on race, color, nationality, etc. But to qualify, the private club must truly be for members only and have selective membership criteria.
So a club that will admit anyone except African Americans does not qualify as a private club. The ACLU of Pennsylvania uses it as a real example of a “private” swim club that would not allow black people to join.
In 2009, the Valley Swim Club, a private swim club located in Huntingdon Valley, Pennsylvania, faced allegations of racial discrimination after a group of predominantly African American children from a day camp visited the club for a swim. The club's management revoked the day camp's contract after the first visit, stating that there were concerns about overcrowding and the children's behavior, but there were allegations that race played a role in the decision.
The ACLU of Pennsylvania filed a complaint with the state’s Human Relations Commission on behalf of the children and families involved, alleging racial discrimination.
The incident received significant media attention, and the courts found that membership in this swim club was generally open to the public, and therefore, it was a “public accommodation” and not a private club. Thus, the club could not discriminate.
The case ultimately resulted in a settlement. The Valley Swim Club agreed to pay damages to the day camp and its participants, and the club's management issued an apology. This case highlighted issues of racial discrimination and raised awareness about the importance of equal treatment and inclusivity in private club settings.
Serving Alcohol in Private Clubs
Many private clubs are popular because they offer their members a fine dining experience in an exclusive setting. The food quality is high, but the prices may be relatively low because the membership fees help offset the costs. Many private clubs can also serve alcohol without regard to local laws regulating public sales. So if local and state laws allow it, a country club may serve alcohol – to its members and their guests only – in a dry county. Like everything else about private clubs, the specific laws vary in each state and municipality.
Some areas with strict alcohol laws may allow a different kind of private club. A restaurant may become a "private club" by charging a small "membership fee" to enter. This temporary membership dodges the law by letting the general public come in.
If you’re thinking about working as a bartender or server at a private club, you’ll need to get your alcohol seller-server certificate. Take our course today to learn more about the laws in your state.
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