Wednesday, April 9

Burk may send small groups to gates

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

'That pit'
Martha Burk calls it ''that pit'' -- the 5.1-acre lot pocked with weeds and a few large anthills where Washington Road winds uphill and curves left, hiding the entrance to Augusta National from sight.

It appears the lot is the closest spot where the women's activist can legally protest Augusta National's men-only membership policy Saturday.

A three-judge federal appeals court panel ruled against Burk on Wednesday. She has hoped it would overturn a U.S. District Court ruling that consigned her protest to the out-of the-way location.

It's a site that lies in the outer orbit of Masters hoopla.

Stretched between a title pawn shop on one corner and an apartment complex entrance on the other, the lot Sheriff Ronald Strength picked for hundreds of anticipated protesters faces a quiet row of 13 small houses with blooming dogwoods.

Few pedestrians trudged past during the final practice round Wednesday. Cars cruised by at the posted speed limit of 45 mph.

''They're in a very bad spot,'' said a ticket scalper, who identified himself only as Nickel, trying to flag down cars outside the pawn shop. ''Who's going to see them? What are the going to do? Shout through a bullhorn at the traffic passing by?''

The sheriff, who has approved permits for up to 900 demonstrators, has said the vacant lot is the closest he's comfortable allowing protests without endangering ticket holders walking and driving to the course.

About a block from the corner of the lot nearest the course begins Washington Road's promenade of restaurants and strip malls, which resemble an endless parking lot during Masters week. Across the street is the northeast corner Augusta National's perimeter fence.

Behind the bamboo thicket shrouding the fence, golfers and fans on the course would be well shielded from protesters, said Roy Hickman, a vendor selling tripod folding chairs near the protest site.

''You can hear the crowds occasionally when they're screaming about things,'' said Hickman, standing across the street from the course. ''But there's so much thick growth along the fence, it really cuts the noise.''

To Burk, chair of the National Council of Women's Organizations, it all adds up to being choked off from her target audience -- the pro golfers and club members who enter Augusta National through wrought iron gates.
-- The Associated Press

The ruling Wednesday by the U.S. 11th 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.

"The way the ordinance reads, we could do it that way," Burk told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. But county attorney James Wall said that may not be possible: "Suffice to say, they won't be able to skirt (the law) by breaking into small groups."

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

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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