Originally created 04/09/03

Appeals court rejects Burk's request to protest at from gate



AUGUSTA, Ga. -- A federal appeals court rejected Martha Burk's emergency request to allow protesters outside the front gate of Augusta National Golf Club.

The ruling Wednesday by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals came just hours before the Masters was scheduled to begin Thursday morning.

Burk, who heads the National Council of Women's Organizations, plans to protest Augusta National's all-male membership during the third round Saturday.

She wanted to place picketers at the front gate of the exclusive club, but Sheriff Ronald Strength would only approve a site a half-mile away. He said it was unsafe to gather in front of the club because of heavy congestion during the golf tournament.

The three-judge panel refused to grant Burk's emergency request to block Monday's ruling by U.S. District Judge Dudley H. Bowen Jr.

Bowen upheld the city ordinance granting Strength the power to regulate protests and also approved the sheriff's application of the law in handling Burk's request.

Burk said her group had no other legal means to overturn the decision before Saturday, though it will continue to fight the constitutionality of the city ordinance in court.

"So, the circle is complete on cutting off our free speech rights," she said. "This was our last shot."

Burk wanted to post 24 demonstrators outside the front gate of Augusta National and 200 more across the street.

She believed that would be the most effective way to demonstrate against Augusta National, which said again Wednesday that it has no timetable to admit a female member.

Strength turned down Burk's request, citing safety concerns along five-lane Washington Road. He said the protests would have to be held a half-mile away - at a grassy, 5.1-acre site donated by the club.

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.

In all, the sheriff's office has approved protest permits for eight groups, including a splinter faction of the Ku Klux Klan and People Against Ridiculous Protests.

Burk said the Georgia ACLU would have monitors at the protest to ensure no one's rights are violated. She is concerned that the ordinance gives the sheriff's office broad power to determine what's legal.

"I'm disappointed that the wall of discrimination is so high down there that local authorities, and even the judges, are willing to conspire with the club, the mayor and the city commission to deny us our free speech rights," the Washington-based Burk said.

"Clearly, they put this club over the Constitution. That ought to be a concern for everyone in this country."

Burk said her attorneys would study a possible loophole in the ordinance that could allow fewer than five protesters to gather at the gate without a permit.

In any event, she said her group would not do anything illegal at Saturday's gathering.