Barbara S. Miller/Observer-Reporter

Brant Miller, attorney for Loyal Order of the Moose Lodge No. 22, leaves court following a hearing Thursday at Washington County Courthouse.

The status of a local Moose lodge in light of the international organization’s no-smoking policy is a burning question to be decided by a Washington County judge.

Local leaders of Loyal Order of the Moose Lodge No. 22 in Canton Township testified they’re willing to enclose an area for smokers – known as the front bar of the West Chestnut Street establishment – so the club complies with a smoking ban delegates to parent organization voted for at a 2019 convention in Las Vegas.

But a general governor and chief compliance officer of the international organization based in Illinois told the court only lodges with smoking areas already in existence when the ban was enacted last summer are “grandfathered.” Michael Luer, from the Chicago area, said he can’t allow lodges to stray from the fold of nearly 1,500 on the no-smoking issue because an even larger one looms later this year: admitting women as full members of the fraternal organization.

“This case is being watched by all of the Pennsylvania lodges and lodges across the nation,” Luer testified.

But officers of the Washington lodge say they’re ahead of that curve, because they already allow women to have full membership. Luer put the number of members at the Washington lodge at 800, but the fraternalists and their attorney said it’s closer to 1,500, counting women.

Luer said surveys from within the organization aiming to shore up declining membership pointed to smoking at clubs as a detriment among nonsmokers. A smoking ban that took effect Jan. 1 passed overwhelmingly in July 2019, he testified.

“Most states had already taken care of this with their own acts,” Luer noted, but not Pennsylvania, which has exceptions for fraternal and veterans’ organizations.

Some Moose lodges were largely smoke-free before the ban was voted upon because they had already built smoking rooms with separate heating and ventilation systems, and the parent organization “was not going to ask those who put in smoking rooms to rip those out,” Luer said under questioning by the organization’s attorney John W. Zotter.

Members and their guests can go outside the lodge to smoke, but erecting a shelter isn’t feasible, according to an officer of the local club who said, “We’re kind of land-locked.”

The struggle between the parent organization, which has revoked the charter of the Washington Club and is seeking an injunction to take control of the property at 2021 West Chestnut St., could be decided by late next week, President Judge Katherine B. Emery said after listening to testimony for several hours Thursday.

“There’s a lot at stake,” Zotter said. “They have a building that says Moose on it. They have a liquor license that says Moose on it.”

The local lodge continues to operate, having hosted fundraisers last week for the Canton Township Volunteer Fire Department and a cancer patient.

Luer said he had not been inside the Washington Moose lodge, but when trustee Brian Eckert said the general governor was denied entrance to the local club, a ripple of laughter went through the more than a dozen members who turned out to show support for Lodge No. 22.

The issue of liability in case of an accident related to liquor sale is a significant one, and attorney Brant Miller, who is from McDonald but practices in Pittsburgh, alluded to state police being called as tempers rose over the attempted closure last month.

“We asked state troopers to issue trespassing citations, but they couldn’t because Moose International was not on the title” to the property, replied Luer, who said he denied Lodge No. 22 a “dispensation” to enclose a bar as a smoking area … We would never allow for a smoking bar.” About 100 dispensations have been granted for smoking rooms, he said.

The name of Stan Adams, a territory manager for Moose clubs the Pittsburgh area, came up repeatedly during Thursday’s hearing as someone who dealt directly with Lodge No. 22 leaders during the dispute, but Emery noted neither side subpoenaed him.

Melvin Hatfield of Washington, past governor of the local Moose lodge, said he voted against the smoking ban adopted at the convention, but left Las Vegas with the impression that Lodge No. 22 would be able to alter its floor plan to enclose one bar as a smoking area, leaving two bars, part of the first floor and the entire second floor for nonsmokers like himself. He spoke of $1 million in grant money through the international club would be available to aid in remodeling on a first-come, first-served basis.

Roger L. Fisher of Hathaway Road, who serves a governor of Lodge No. 22, estimated the cost of glass doors to enclose the bar at between $3,500 and $4,500 with members’ donated labor.

“If everybody got together on a weekend, we could do it in a weekend,” he said. Fisher said he was aware of the international organization giving $10,000 to the local club several years ago, but Eckert testified, “I’ve never seen them give a nickel to us.”

Eckert said the club members voted 229 in favor of allowing smoking with 49 against. He foresees lodge members forsaking the international organization to become an independent club, and said they should have been afforded due process before the Moose parent organization pulled their charter and expelled members.

“This thing has spiraled out of control very quickly,” Miller told the judge.

The Washington Moose club was founded in 1907, and in 1988, it moved to its current location.

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