RALEIGH — Pitt County bars and private clubs fighting the state's indoor smoking ban have had their brief legal victory snuffed out by the state Court of Appeals.
In a unanimous ruling written by Judge Linda Stephens, a three-judge panel struck down a lower court ruling in which the owners of four Greenville nightclubs had persuaded a Pitt County judge the state's 2009 ban violated the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution.
Some private clubs are exempt from the law, and bar owners and billiards club owners in Pitt County and Greensboro have launched legal challenges based on that clause.
In Greensboro, attorneys for Don Liebes, owner of the Gate City Billiards Country Club in southwest Greensboro, have argued that the law violates the pool hall owner's rights by exempting nonprofit private clubs but not for-profit private clubs.
The Veterans of Foreign Wars, for example, may smoke inside their private club posts. As may anyone at Elks, Moose and other private lodges, under the law. Nonprofit country clubs can permit indoor smoking if they choose.
But for-profit private clubs - whether golf, billiards or some other game is the draw - must prohibit smoking indoors, under the state statute.
The Pitt County case centered on whether the Health Department was in the wrong by fining bars and private clubs intentionally flouting the smoking ban.
In the ruling released today, Stephens wrote that the wording of the state ban creates distinct categories of social clubs, providing clear guidance on where indoor smoking is prohibited. The judge said private golf, yachting or racquet clubs can be easily distinguished from bars and restaurants.