There are a few prerequisites for anyone applying to be a Freemason: You must be a man, you can’t be a slave, you must have good character and you must have faith in a supreme being.
Those broad rules have allowed some of the more progressive chapters in the centuries-old fraternal organization, such as Atlanta’s Gate City Lodge No. 2, to fill their ranks with diverse members.
The chapter’s leaders say that racial harmony was threatened recently when other Freemasons sought to revoke the lodge’s charter for allowing Victor Marshall, who is black, to join up. The dispute has drawn the normally secretive group into a rare public battle.
The chapter sued the Grand Lodge of Georgia on June 18, claiming the charges are based on “racial animosity and hatred” and violate the organization’s principles.
“I hope we’ll be victorious and that Freemasonry will come out in a more powerful light,” said Marshall, a 26-year-old Army reservist. “But of course sometimes the bad side can overwhelm the good side.”
As with other fraternal and exclusive organizations, race historically has been a source of division within the Freemasons. All-black lodges sprouted up across the country for decades as whites sought to ban blacks from joining the organization.
Some of the lodges were integrated in the aftermath of the civil rights movement, and Masons adopted a code in the 1990s banning them from objecting to potential members based on race, color or religion. While Freemasons say they don’t keep statistics on the ethnic or religious makeup of their members, they claim their organization has grown diverse enough over the last 50 years that there are American lodges that speak Spanish, Farsi and other languages.
Richard Fletcher, the executive secretary of the Masonic Service Association, said discrimination complaints have dwindled as the organization has opened its doors.
“These are very, very rare,” said Fletcher, who has been a Freemason for 52 years. “We’re a cross-section of the country, so we’re not devoid of sin. I’m sure there are people who are racially motivated, but not to the extent that it used to be.”
The Georgia dispute arose in February when Marshall and other members across the state visited a lodge in Savannah for a celebration. Some apparently were surprised that Marshall and other nonwhite members were at the event, and questioned whether he was a member.
The state organization’s leader, J. Edward Jennings, sent out a memo confirming that Marshall was a legitimate member after a lodge in north Georgia requested an emergency meeting to discuss the situation, the lawsuit said.
The message apparently didn’t quiet the critics.
The lawsuit claims members then filed “spurious” charges within the state organization against the Atlanta chapter’s leader, Michael Bjelajac, claiming he violated the group’s rules because he allowed a nonwhite man into the group. They say he violated the “Laws of Masonry” and the “moral law,” according to the complaint.
The charges seek to oust Bjelajac and revoke the chapter’s charter, according to the lawsuit.
The Georgia chapter’s attorneys, who are also Freemasons, said the lawsuit is one of only a handful against Freemason organizations in recent years. In 2008, a West Virginia Freemason leader sued, claiming he was defamed after he changed membership policies to make them less discriminatory and racist.
“It’s an unusual and frankly unfortunate situation,” said David J. Llewellyn, one of the attorneys who filed the lawsuit in DeKalb County Superior Court.
The Grand Lodge of Georgia is tightlipped about the lawsuit, which seeks to block the organization from punishing the Atlanta chapter. Donald DeKalb, the state group’s secretary, said the Freemasons don’t discriminate.
“There’s nothing in our Masonic law that restricts any nonwhites from joining,” he said.
DeKalb refused to comment further. The group’s leader and several lodge officials named in the lawsuit also did not respond to phone and e-mail messages.
Marshall said he was hurt by the charges, especially since the society’s openness is one of the reasons he decided to apply for membership last November. He’s told himself it won’t let it frustrate him.
“I think this issue is a lot larger than me,” he said. “I’ve met too many positive people to allow something like this to make me stand back. Freemasonry itself is built on morality. And I’ve never looked back. I’ll continue to strive on.”