LOUISVILLE — The push to integrate Kentucky's private social clubs, whose members clung to old notions of Southern white privilege for decades after the end of Jim Crow, began in the early 1990s with a lone, quiet protest: At lunchtime on days when the weather was nice, a black preacher and civil rights activist named Louis Coleman would put up a folding card table in front of one of the many unofficially restricted clubs here; set it with a tablecloth, china and candles; and dine on buns and lemonade.
Coleman died in 2008, but his efforts drew the attention of the state's Commission on Human Rights, which opened a decade-long inquiry into Kentucky's country clubs and men-only dining societies.
A 2004 state Supreme Court ruling pushed Kentucky's remaining segregated clubs to stop the discrimination or risk losing tax deductions. Still, at least one club held out until late last year.
But the idea that the government has no right to interfere with membership practices of private businesses and clubs is prevalent enough in the state that it has become a point of controversy in this year's U.S. Senate race in the state.
Republican Party nominee Rand Paul caused a stir last month when he said private businesses should not be forced to abide by civil rights laws.
Republican Party leaders wanted nothing to do with his comments, and Paul soon backed down, saying he supports the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and would not want it to be repealed.
But some in Kentucky welcomed his remarks. For many years, Kentuckians who belong to the state's most exclusive clubs have made the same argument that got Paul into trouble. Two decades after prominent country clubs in many other states began to accept their first black members, some here remained segregated, said Gerald Smith, director of African-American studies at the University of Kentucky.
It is that social atmosphere that allowed Paul to question an area of civil rights law that most politicians consider beyond debate, Smith said. "The things that we are highlighting as though they are newsworthy are no longer news in a whole lot of places. We are still dealing with 'first' stuff."
The Idle Hour Country Club in Lexington is one example. The club, founded in 1924, is known for its pristine 18-hole golf course, clay tennis courts and Southern cuisine. Until seven months ago, it had never had a black member.
Phil Scott, chairman of Idle Hour's board, said he agreed with Paul's initial view that there is "tension" regarding the rights of private groups and the protections of civil rights law.
"We all have the right under the Constitution to meet with people and be with people we want to be with," said Scott, a trial lawyer. "On the other hand, there are equal protections under the law. The question is: Which is going to prevail?"
The prevailing view at Idle Hour has always been: If we don't want you, we don't have to take you.
"That's very plain," Scott said. "There is no right of membership. It's a privilege." (And one for the privileged. New members pay a $50,000 initiation fee.) The club accepted its first black member — former University of Kentucky star and retired NBA player Sam Bowie — in November. "Sam's just like everybody else," Scott said.
The Louisville Country Club accepted its first black members in 2006. John McCall, the club's president and an executive at a local energy company, said he feels strongly that it and others "should have moved faster." (He declined to say how many black members are there now.) Yet he, too, resists the notion that government should have a say in how his club operates.
"You will have a more successful value-based society" if you can move people to the "right conclusions about their own lives than if you force it," McCall said.
The state Supreme Court ruled in 2004 that the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights could force clubs to open their records, under a state law that prohibits club members from taking tax deductions for dues to clubs that discriminate.
Since then, "there have been tremendous changes," said John Johnson, executive director of the commission. "The truth is that if people were going to do the right thing, there would have never been a need for these laws to be on the books to begin with."
The case, which pitted the private clubs against a state agency, reflects the kind of government intervention that Paul seemed to reject.