By JAMES MITCHELL
Sunday Times Newspapers
TAYLOR — A company’s decision to offer gender-segregated fitness facilities to its clients inspired a dozen complaints to the Michigan Department of Civil Rights and demonstrations at two Downriver outlets.
Whether the decision is challenged in court, as some Fitness USA members reportedly speculated, remains to be seen, but wasn’t expected any time soon.
The health club—open to fee-paying members — has five Michigan outlets: Downriver facilities Lincoln Park and Taylor, and Dearborn, Lansing and Flint. In December 2011 the Dearborn outlet adjusted its facilities to women-only, a transition welcomed by many clients.
Fitness USA Coordinator Jodi Berry — who did not respond to requests for comment — reportedly explained that the decision offers women customers a “comfortable environment,” and that the business was geared toward offering “a woman’s oasis” free of potential issues they may feel in a coed environment.
Last month the company changed its outlet in Taylor, 14406 Pardee, from coed to women only. In response, several dozen men who said they were Fitness USA clients demonstrated first outside the Taylor complex, and again on Thursday, April 11 in Lincoln Park. Men who belong to the club said it was now the only coed franchise in the area — of Fitness USA — which amounted to discrimination and an infringement on their civil rights.
Some of the men complained formally in letters sent to the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, which responded with a request that complaining members formalize their statement in notarized form.
That letter, according to MDCR Communications Director Vicki Levengood, confirmed that the agency will investigate the complaints, but that any litigation is a long way off.
“An investigator will now examine the issues,” Levengood said. “It’s a complex process with lots of layers and steps.”
Two issues were raised in the complaints: That Fitness USA discriminated against men by limiting their access to one of the company’s three locations, and that the coed franchise in Lincoln Park is not handicap accessible.
Even if an investigation determines that the club — a private entity with fee-based membership — violated member rights, Levengood said that litigation would remain the last resort.
Once the investigation is completed the MDCR would attempt to mediate the dispute between Fitness USA and the complainants. The MDCR, Levengood said, is a neutral party and does not advocate for either the complainant or respondent.