District Court Judge Mary Collins ruled in favor of the government's Equality Authority, which argued that Portmarnock Golf Club was breaching a 2000 anti-discrimination law.
That law, the Equal Status Act, permits private clubs to restrict membership only if the club promotes an activity specific to a particular group. Collins ruled that golf is played equally by men and women, so no golf club in Ireland should be allowed to bar women.
'This is a landmark decision,'' said Equality Authority chief executive Niall Crowley. 'It sends out a message to wider society about the importance of including women.''
But the judge declined to specify any punishment for the club pending the outcome of another case in the High Court, Ireland's second-highest court, which is weighing whether the 2000 act is constitutional. Lawyers for the Portmarnock club argue it isn't. That case could take several months to be decided and could, in turn, be appealed by either side to the Supreme Court.
Portmarnock club manager Bruce Mitchell declined comment Friday. He previously has argued that the club doesn't discriminate because it does permit women and other nonmember visitors to play at specific times during the week. He said members had overwhelmingly opposed giving membership rights to women during three debates on the subject since 2000.
The National Women's Council of Ireland -- which, inspired by similar protests against the Augusta National Golf Club in the United States, filed a discrimination complaint with the Equality Authority in 2002 -- says the policy means female golfers have no voting rights at the club and aren't allowed to play at the best tee-off times.
If Portmarnock is eventually punished for its membership policy, the major sanction would be to withdraw its certificate of registration. This would prevent the club from selling alcoholic beverages in its clubhouse, initially for a 30-day period. But the club could react by offering its members drinks for free or allowing them to bring in their own beverages.
The wind-swept course, founded in 1894, is bounded on three sides by water and is considered one of Ireland's most challenging links courses. Its 18-hole championship course, designed by German pro Bernhard Langer, played host to the Irish Open for the 13th time last year.
Under current membership rules its only permitted female member is President Mary McAleese, the largely symbolic head of government.
One other internationally regarded Irish course, the Royal Dublin, also bars women as members but hasn't yet been subjected to any discrimination complaints.
Fiona Malley, a Progressive Democratic Party lawmaker in Ireland's coalition government, assailed Portmarnock as 'one of only a handful of dinosaur-like institutions left in this country.''
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