Boy Scouts Face Battle Over Gay Rights

ByGeraldine Sealey

June 20, 2001 -- When the U.S. Supreme Court allowed the Boy Scouts of America to continue its exclusion of gays a year ago this month, the landmark ruling might have been a hands-down victory for the venerable youth organization.

The past year has been anything but a time for unity among the troops, however. Instead, the Scouts have found themselves squarely at the center of an American culture war over gay rights — and in some cases, the battle cry against excluding gays is being heard from within.

Just this month, leaders from nine of the largest Scout councils including New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago and Los Angeles have asked the national organization to open up its policy, which prohibits gays from being members or troop leaders.

Opposition is coming from outside the Scouts' ranks as well. On Tuesday, the American Medical Association voted to urge the Boy Scouts to reconsider the policy because it could cause psychological trauma in young people.

Schools from Broward County, Fla., to Eugene, Ore., have taken steps to prevent Scouts from meeting on their property since the high court ruling, citing policies that prohibit discrimination. After the New York City schools cut ties to the Boy Scouts, membership dropped by half in the city to 26,000 in 2000.

In Oak Park, Ill., several Boy Scout troops and Cub Scout packs lost their charters after parent-teacher organization sponsors followed their school's anti-discrimination policy and permitted gays.

Seven found new sponsors and an eighth is reorganizing under Camp Fire USA, a program that accepts gays.

Has the Roof Fallen In?

Meanwhile, dozens of United Way chapters are pulling the plug on donations to their local Scout troops. In Santa Barbara, where the United Way won't fund the Scouts for the first time in 70 years, the move cost the group $56,000 in grant money. In Palm Beach, local troops will lose $120,000 in annual United Way funds.

The Scouts also lost a high-profile supporter in recent months when film director and Eagle Scout Steven Spielberg announced he had declined another term on the group's honorary advisory board, calling the anti-gay policy "a real shame."

Does this imbroglio over gays amount to just a blip in the 91-year history of the Boy Scouts, or does it signal a deepening cultural divide in a group that once had mass appeal? That depends on whom you ask, of course.

Dave Rice, co-founder of Scouting for All, an organization dedicated to overturning the ban on gays, sees the Scouts' rigid policy as fatal to the group's influence on mainstream American culture. Eventually, he says, if the Scouts refuse to diversify, they might become just a youthful extension of conservative religious groups.

Already, Rice says, the Scouts are starting to see the consequences of barring gays from their ranks.

"They thought everything would be solved last June [with the high court ruling] and instead the roof has fallen in on them," he said. "This monolithic façade which the Boy Scouts have tried to present to the world has got cracks all over it."

Funding, Membership Going Strong

Despite the controversy over the exclusion of gays, the Scouts stand by their policy. Scouting officials dispute the notion that the group's future success is at risk.

Membership in the Boy Scouts has gone down about 2 percent to 3.3 million members in the last year, but a spokesman says demographic factors such as the aging of the Baby Boomers' children largely account for the loss.

In fact, says Scout spokesman Gregg Shields, the number of youth being reached by all of the BSA's programs, including Venturers and Learning for Life, has gone up to more than 6 million.

Funding has also increased in some areas since the Supreme Court ruled on June 28, 2000, that the Scouts could expel James Dale, a gay Scout leader from New Jersey. The Scouts had that right as a private organization, the justices ruled.

In some cases, United Way donors have earmarked personal gifts for the Scouts. In Minnesota's Twin Cities area, for example, donations specifically to the Scouts went up $500,000 last year, almost a four-fold increase from the year before.

In other cities, like Seattle and San Francisco, the Scouts raised more local money than ever after the United Way chapter cut off funding.

Scouts: City Leaders Don't Speak for Everyone

The Scouts are also getting a helping hand from some of the nation's most powerful politicians. In Washington last week, the Senate passed a Jesse Helms-sponsored proposal cutting federal funds to school districts that prevent the Scouts from meeting or recruiting on their grounds. The House passed a similar measure weeks earlier.

This rally of support for the Scouts in some quarters doesn't surprise Shields. While Scout leaders from the nation's major urban centers have expressed their desire to open up the troops, they don't necessarily represent the millions of other participants in scouting, he said.

"As we go forward, we have to keep in mind the values and beliefs of all the scouting families," he said. "That's really what's important."

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