It started over five bucks.

In 1998, a Gloucester County man said he was the victim of reverse discrimination when a Cherry Hill bar hit him with a $5 cover charge while letting women in free on "ladies' night."

His complaint led to a 2004 ruling by the state Division on Civil Rights that ladies' night promotions - free admission and discounted drinks for women - violated New Jersey's Law Against Discrimination.

Ladies' nights are still illegal, though many establishments offer them. A bill in the Senate Judiciary Committee would restore legitimacy to the promotions and take away the risk, however small, that the Attorney General's Office could sue.

A victory for the ladies, said Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr. (R., Union), the bill's sponsor, would help bar owners - and send a message to government to quit meddling in business.

"It's just one of these absurd over-regulatory efforts," he said. "It just shows where the bureaucracy has gone too far."

The controversial decision against ladies' nights came in June 2004, when J. Frank Vespa-Papaleo, who was director of the civil-rights division, ruled that the Coastline bar and restaurant had intended to treat a customer differently, "based on his gender," by charging him a cover during one of the promotions.

Later that month, a measure to restore ladies' nights passed in the Assembly, 78-0, but it died on the Senate floor.

At the Coastline, on Brace Road, owner Chris Mourtos reinstated ladies' night after learning about the Assembly vote. Women are admitted free until 10 p.m. on Fridays, and he said there had been no customer complaints.

Mourtos believes what he has all along, "that having a ladies' night is no different" from having children's or senior discounts.

But the crowd isn't what it was before the ruling. Ladies' night went 25 years before it ran into trouble, he said: "It used to be our most popular night." After the disruption, "the night never recovered."

At Buzz's Tavern in Mount Holly, women get $1 off drinks on Thursdays. And at Katmandu, a Trenton nightclub, the cover is waived for women between 9 and 11 p.m. on Saturdays.

John Sarno, an expert in discrimination law and president of the Employers Association of New Jersey, said that even without passage of Kean's bill, it was highly unlikely the Attorney General's Office would ever take any of the establishments to court.

"The State of New Jersey would be a laughing stock to the rest of the country if it actually decided to sue a restaurant for a ladies' night," Sarno said.

Kean's bill "is trying to fix a problem that probably doesn't exist," he said, though it's "a nonissue that I guess warrants clarification."

Removing the "looming threat" to proprietors might also encourage more to initiate the promotion, said Deborah Dowdell, president of the New Jersey Restaurant Association, adding that she supports the bill.

A spokesman from the Attorney General's Office said the civil-rights division had no comment on the measure.

The 2004 ruling was "silly" and needs to go, Kean said. But the real issue, he said, is overextended bureaucracy.

"It is hard enough to operate a small business in this state, which has developed a reputation for regulatory overkill and outright hostility to economic growth," Kean said in a statement. "We do not need to make things worse by attacking harmless and nondiscriminatory promotional activities that aid businesses that are struggling in the economic downturn."