New Jersey’s most exclusive golf course may be too exclusive.
The state filed a civil rights complaint against the Pine Valley Golf Club on Wednesday, alleging “a pattern of gender-based discrimination” by the historically male-dominated club in its membership, its public accommodations, its employment and restricted housing opportunities to live on the course offered only to members.
According to the eight-page administrative complaint, the state Attorney General’s office alleged that Pine Valley violated New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination by banning women from becoming members and restricting their ability to golf and access club facilities.
Officials said those policies were only relaxed after the state launched an investigation.
“Gender-based discrimination has no place in New Jersey, period,” Acting Attorney General Matthew Platkin said in a statement.
Club officials did not respond to calls, texts or emails seeking comment. But Pine Valley told state investigators that it had lifted all restrictions on membership and use of its facilities based on sex or gender by the spring of 2021 after the Civil Rights Division had commenced its investigation, the state said.
Pine Valley, located in Camden County about 20 miles southeast of Philadelphia, is considered among the greatest golf courses in the world. Golf Digest describes its setting nestled in the pine barrens of southwest Jersey – designed in 1912 by Philadelphia hotelier George Crump – as demanding and “unparalleled.”
Over the decades it carried its cliquish exclusivity as part of its mystique. It still does not disclose its members, which New Jersey officials said number about 700. They include former presidents, celebrities, business leaders and their friends. To join, one must be invited. Visitors may only play with one member. Stories of famed golfers such as Tom Watson being turned away at the gate are legendary.
From its founding over 108 years ago until approximately April 2021, the club banned women from becoming members and – with extremely narrow exceptions – prohibited them from playing golf or otherwise accessing club facilities, the state charged in its complaint.
As of July 2021, it said the club had reported that it admitted only three women as members, representing less than 0.5% of its membership.
Indeed, women were once not even allowed on the property.
As a private club, Pine Valley has long lived under the premise that it is legally entitled to choose whoever it wants to admit. Federal laws do not regulate private membership clubs regarding their membership policies.
State officials in announcing the complaint acknowledged that clubs that are distinctly private are exempt from the Law Against Discrimination’s protections from discrimination in places of public accommodation. But they said an exception could be invoked regarding the Pine Valley Gulf Club because the club was so deeply intertwined with the former borough of Pine Valley.
The borough was a legally incorporated New Jersey municipality where all the land was owned by the golf club and served no other purpose than as gatekeeper for the club. Essentially, the club was the borough.
Pine Valley, the borough, merged into the neighboring Pine Hill around the beginning of 2022.
The complaint alleged that the club used discriminatory restrictive covenants to prevent women from owning houses on the club’s land unless they co-owned a house with a man.
Under the club’s rules, only members were allowed to purchase any of the 19 houses tucked away around the golf course. And until recently, only men were admitted as members. That meant women were not allowed to buy any of those homes, giving Pine Valley perhaps the most restrictive housing policies in the state.
Documents obtained by NJ Advance Media last year revealed that the state’s investigation, which went back to at least 2019, initially began with an examination of those housing practices, but also raised questions about employment practices, including the lack of women on the police force.
The complaint noted that recruiting employment is primarily based on word-of-mouth referrals from the club’s workforce of mostly men, which resulted in the club being staffed almost exclusively by men. Only six of the club’s approximately 159 employees are women, officials said.
Division on Civil Rights Deputy Director Rosemary DiSavino said the Law Against Discrimination prohibits policies and practices that are intended to exclude people who identify as women.
“Failure to provide equal access to persons of all genders in housing, employment and places of public accommodation has consequences,” she said in a statement.
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Ted Sherman may be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @TedShermanSL.