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Burk Appeals Ruling on Augusta Gate Protest

AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) -- Martha Burk isn't giving up on the idea of picketing at the front gate of the men's-only Augusta National Golf Club.
Burk and her allies headed to the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday after a district judge ruled the city can restrict protests to a site a half-mile away from the club's main entrance.
With the Masters set to begin Thursday, Burk asked for an emergency ruling from the Atlanta-based appeals court.
``Time is growing short,'' she said Tuesday in a telephone interview. ``That's not usual for authorities who are not acting in good faith to try to delay past the point where if makes no difference.''
Burk, who wants the club to allow female members, plans to protest Saturday during the third round of the Masters.
She asked to set up pickets outside the main gate, believing that would be the most effective way to get her message across.
But Sheriff Ronald Strength, who was given broad power to regulate protests under a new city ordinance, relegated Burk and other groups to a location away from the gate -- a grassy, 5.1-acre site donated by the club.
Strength said the area in front of the gate, including five-lane Washington Road, is too congested during Masters week to hold a protest safely.
U.S. District Judge Dudley H. Bowen Jr. upheld the city ordinance and Strength's application of the law in two separate rulings Monday.
``I think it's clear they acted in the best interest of the city and the club rather than the best interests of the First Amendment,'' Burk said. ``Party revelers are taking precedent over protesters.''
On Tuesday, the area in front of the gate was crowded with people heading to the course to watch practice on a drizzly, gray day.
The fans intermingled on the sidewalk with vendors selling everything from sunglasses to Arnold Palmer pictures. A waitress from a Japanese restaurant handed out coupons for 50-cent beer and a free shot of saki.
Meanwhile, the designated protest area was empty except for Todd Manzi and two supporters. Manzi has founded an anti-Burk Web site.
``I believe a private club has the right to choose who they want in their club,'' said Judy Collins, who collected signatures in support of Augusta National chairman Hootie Johnson.
Wearing a green ``Hootie'' hat, she stood under a tent that was decorated with signs such as ``Just Say No To Bully Burk'' and ``The Only Woman Martha Burk Has Helped Is Martha Burk.'' Collins said she hopes to present Burk with a petition that supposedly contains more than 8,000 signatures backing the club's position.
``I don't think she'll let me,'' Collins said with a smile.
Meanwhile, a single sheriff's car was parked nearby, with nothing much to do except watch the passing traffic.
A group headed by the Rev. Jesse Jackson also has been approved to protest at a second site even further away from the club's main entrance.
Burk, who heads the National Council of Women's Organizations, wanted to post 24 demonstrators outside the front gate of Augusta National and 200 more across the street. Strength turned down the request.
Working with Burk, the ALCU of Georgia challenged the ordinance, saying it gives the sheriff too much power to approve or deny protests and dictate their location.
Bowen sided with the city.
``The ordinance does not discriminate against a particular viewpoint or limit speech to certain subject matters,'' he wrote in his first decision.
Bowen also ruled that Strength acted properly to enforce the ordinance.
``I am without doubt that the reasons articulated by the sheriff are grounded in legitimate concerns for public safety, and not in the impermissible purposes of preventing embarrassment to the Augusta National or the city of Augusta,'' the judge wrote.
Burk said the site proposed by the sheriff is ``unacceptable.''
``It is out of sight of the club,'' she said. ``It's even below the grade of the street. You actually have to drive down a few feet to get to it. It sounds like we're truly in the pits.''
While much of the field is lower than Washington Road, it's still visible to passing motorists. Bowen wrote that the city-approved site is actually better for protesters trying to influence players and club members.
``This group must arrive by way of Washington Road,'' the judge wrote. ``If, as most of them probably will, they arrive by automobile from the westbound lanes of Washington Road, they will see the protesters at the alternate site if they choose to look.''
Augusta National said it has no interest in the court case. Inside the club, no one was allowed to express an opinion on the dispute -- pro or con.
``No cell phones, no pagers, no Hootie stuff, no Martha stuff,'' a security guard barked as fans entered the gates.
The golfers also tried to stay out of the brouhaha.
``We're really not thinking about it too much,'' Billy Mayfair said. ``It doesn't feel any different this year than any other year.''
The sheriff's office has approved protest permits for eight groups, including a one-man faction of the Ku Klux Klan and ``People Against Ridiculous Protests.''
Burk said she is ``very concerned'' about all those groups being confined to the same site.
``We want to find out what the plan is to maintain order given the fact that they've put groups such as the KKK right on top of us,'' he said. ``I think the sheriff is obligated to give us adequate protection.''
City attorney Jim Wall said the protesters shouldn't worry.
``The sheriff is going to make arrangements to keep the groups separated,'' Wall said. ``He will have adequate officers there to address any issues that may come up.''
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