A bill under committee review today in Wisconsin’s state Assembly would allow for single-sex fitness centers to be operated legally.

The bill was approved by a 23-8 last Tuesday in the state Senate.

Sen. Carol Roessler, R-Oshkosh, proposed the bill as a way to accommodate women who feel uncomfortable exercising in the company of men by legally allowing for profit fitness centers to deny membership to people based on gender.

The introduction of the bill was prompted by the more than two-year legal struggle of La Crosse fitness-center owner Chas Swayne.

Swayne had thought about opening a fitness center exclusively for women but was told the concept would violate state discrimination laws. Shortly thereafter, Curves International Fitness Centers for Women opened a women-only gym in Wisconsin.

Curves was started in 1995 in Waco, Texas, and specializes in 30-minute exercise activities designed for women, focusing on strength and aerobic training. Since its establishment, Curves has set up more than 5,000 franchises worldwide, including 173 in Wisconsin in the last three years.

When Curves started franchising in the state, Swayne filed a complaint with the Department of Work Force Development’s Equal Rights Division, which recognized that denying membership on the basis of sex violates current law.

Opponents of the bill say it would create a law that would allow for discrimination against men and women.

“These fitness centers are not private clubs,” said Chris Ahmuty, executive director of the Wisconsin branch of the American Civil Liberties Union. “You would think that if anyone paid the money they could get equal services.”

Ahmuty said the civil liberties assailed by the Curves bill are different from the ones many feel were violated in the national controversy surrounding Augusta National Golf Club, home of the Masters golf tournament.

“Augusta is a private club. This bill would allow businesses to deny admission on the basis of [gender],” Ahmuty said. “If you purport to serve the public, you can’t have the advantages of being a commercial enterprise without adhering (to) the discrimination laws for businesses.”

Some of the discussion of the matter on the floor of the Senate centered around the idea that businesses should be allowed to design and market their goods or services however they see fit and female consumers have a right to purchase such products.

Ahmuty said that argument was valid up to the point it impeded or harmed the rights of others and, in a letter to Roessler, said the bill could be misinterpreted to affect the rights of people of both genders.

In the letter, Ahmuty said if a profit organization were allowed to deny membership to men, other businesses would attempt to refuse admission to women, rendering moot the rulings of the Supreme Court in numerous civil-rights cases in the ’70s.

The bill’s proponents’ main argument is that women would simply feel more comfortable working out in a single-sex environment.

In response, Ahmuty argued, “We shouldn’t think women are so emotionally fragile that they can’t work out in the same spaces as men. They already do it all the time in gyms across the state. The current law already allows for separate locker rooms and saunas.”