This is a follow-up to The Benevolent and Protective Order of (non-atheist) Elks, which I wrote in 2011. I never thought that ten years later, it would still be one of the most-read posts on my blog! Quite a bit has changed since then, so it’s time for an update.
When it was formed in 1868, the Elks was definitely a product of its time. It was a social club exclusively for American white men. Although they jealously guard official documents and rituals, details came out. One lawsuit against the Elks (Cornelius v. Benevolent Protective Order of Elks, 1974) included this in the notes:
Over time, the discriminatory membership requirements were loosened, mostly through outside pressure and lawsuits. In the early 70s, the Elks dropped their ban on non-white members. In 1993, they began accepting women as members. A ban on members of the communist party came and went.
But some discrimination remained, encoded into the very DNA of the Elks.
To this day, the Elks have an official requirement that members must “believe in God,” which was the subject of my previous Elks blog post. My father was an Elk, and I became a member in 2002. I “sat the chairs,” holding almost every officer position up to and including “Exalted Ruler” of Beartooth Lodge #534 — an office I held for three terms. I later became chair of their Board of Trustees.
Their discrimination against non-Christians bothered me, but within our Lodge I knew that a belief in God could be stretched to apply to many non-Christian religions, so I kept my membership.
In 2015, I had an opportunity to meet the GER (Grand Exalted Ruler – the top official in the whole organization), Ronald Hicks, and I told him that discriminating against atheists was preventing some active, caring people from becoming members of the organization. I told him that I felt strongly that we should drop that membership requirement. My suggestion was not met with enthusiasm, either in our local lodge nor the Grand Lodge.
Then, in 2017, a non-discrimination resolution (NDR) was proposed in our town. In a nutshell, it stated that the city should welcome everybody equally and that everyone should have the same access to housing, jobs, and other basic human rights.
Our local Elks lodge — which I had proudly led just a few years earlier — joined a local church in vehemently opposing the NDR. Along with our police chief at the time, they didn’t want atheists, Muslims, gays, or transgender people to live here. At that moment, the Elks crossed the line from practicing discrimination and bigotry within their own organization to publicly lobbying against equality and human rights.
They clearly interpret “thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” to mean “if we can prevent LGBTQ people from renting homes, getting jobs, or buying property here, they won’t be our neighbors and we won’t have to love them.”
As an organization that officially banned Black people until 1973 and officially banned women until 1993, change comes slowly to the Elks. I can only assume they won’t accept full equality until it is forced upon them, and they’ll resist it even then.
I am no longer a member or a supporter of the Elks. I stand in solidarity with all of the people that the B.P.O.E. fights to exclude.