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Boy Scouts vs. Gays

How the Boy Scouts’ controversial decision banning gays affects its future

Boy Scouts, LGBT

Former Eagle Scout James Dale, center, leaves the Supreme Court.

Alex Wong/Newsmakers

On June 28th, The United States Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that the Boy Scouts of America has a constitutional right to bar gay men and boys from membership. The case pitted the BSA against James Dale, whose Scouting membership was revoked in 1990 after its leaders found out that he was co-president of an alliance for gays and lesbians at Rutgers University [“The Struggle for the Soul of the Boy Scouts,” RS 844/845].

The victory for the BSA means that the organization will retain important financial supporters, such as the Mormon Church, which sponsors more than 412,000 Scouts. Religious conservatives might supplant the United Way and more moderate religious groups like the United Methodist Church as primary funders, and the culture of the BSA could become increasingly right-wing. The outcome will ultimately depend upon the public’s attitude toward gays.

Dale, who is now thirty years old and the advertising director for POZ, a magazine for people infected with HIV and AIDS, says of his loss, “The real loser will be the Boy Scouts of America.” He cites the protests of the policy within and outside the BSA: “These little fires are going to keep burning. The BSA has taken a step backward. They’re making themselves less relevant to today’s youth.”

In his opinion, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist relied on the majority’s definition of the Boy Scouts as a purely private institution. “The forced inclusion of an unwanted person in a group infringes the group’s freedom of expressive association,” he wrote, “if the presence of that person affects in a significant way the group’s ability to advocate public or private viewpoints.” In dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens wondered whether homosexuality can be called a viewpoint: “Under the majority’s reasoning . . . [the gay] label, even though unseen, communicates a message that permits his exclusion wherever he goes. His openness is the sole and sufficient justification for his ostracism. Though unintended, reliance on such a justification is tantamount to a constitutionally prescribed symbol of inferiority.”

Gay-rights activists, together with the leaders of gay-friendly churches, are preparing fresh assaults that will focus on the public support the BSA receives, especially from schools. They argue that the public-private boundary is transgressed whenever schools sponsor troops or permit recruiting during school hours. Another primary target will be corporate foundations whose funding guidelines forbid contributions to organizations that discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation. SBC Communications, a giant telecommunications company, has just such a policy. Its chairman, Edward E. Whitacre Jr., is also the president of the Boy Scouts of America. An SBC spokesman says the company does not plan to decrease its support for the Boy Scouts. But United Way chapters in Illinois, Connecticut, New Jersey, Maine, New Mexico and California have already cut off BSA funding in recent years as a result of the anti-gay policy, and the drop-off is expected to accelerate.

The United Methodist Church – which sponsors 420,000 Scouts, more than any other group – sent mixed signals in its public response to the decision, noting that internal factions disagree. On July 10th, delegates to the Episcopal Church’s annual convention passed a resolution calling on the BSA to grant membership to gays. The Rev. John Buerhens, president of the Unitarian Universalist Associations, issued a statement saying that it is time to re-examine the BSA’s Congressional charter.

BSA supporters argue that cutting off contributions to the local councils would hit hardest in poor inner-city areas. Gay-rights activists counter that other youth organizations, like the Boys and Girls Clubs, which do not discriminate, should receive additional funding to take up the slack. They note that gay youth are particularly at risk for physical abuse, depression and suicide, and have an urgent need for such programs.

Public protests against the Scouts’ position began with an unscripted act of dissent by a trio of family guys in the Chicago suburb of Highland Park. Michael Weinberg, a lawyer, and two of his friends – Rick Tarnas, who works in corporate banking, and Juan Montenegro, a radio-station manager – carried signs protesting the BSA’s gay ban as they marched with their sons’ Cub Scout packs in the local Fourth of July parade. “There are so many wonderful things about Scouting,” Weinberg says, “but I’m ashamed of the uniform right now.”

BSA volunteers have been expelled for merely telling young Scouts that it is OK to be gay. Among them are Scott Cozza and Dave Rice, the leaders of Scouting for All, an organization that has been pressing since 1998 for the BSA to lift its membership ban. On July 5th, Scouting for All held a protest rally outside the BSA’s local office in Baltimore. The organization plans nationwide demonstrations on August 21st, including one at the headquarters in Irving, Texas.

Robert Cadwalader, a fifty-seven-year-old Scout volunteer, and his four sons, who are all involved in Scouting, stood up for the BSA during the Baltimore protest. “If someone wants to be a homosexual, be my guest,” he told the Washington Post. “But don’t tell me to tell my boys that’s normal. I don’t want someone telling me what values I can instill in my boys.” Activists hope that millions of people affiliated with Scouting will stand up for gay youth, since a majority of the Supreme Court refused to. But the Boy Scouts’ distaste for homosexuals will be a hard tradition to break.

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