House Backs Boy Scouts Charter

The House came down solidly behind the Boy Scouts today with a 362-12 vote to reject a proposal to revoke their eight-decade-old federal charter because of the scouting organization’s policy of excluding gays.

Republicans, who brought the legislation to the House floor to show the lack for support for critics of the Scouts, labeled it an attack on American values.

Rep. Cass Ballenger, R-N.C., said half the members of the House were former scouts and would defend an organization “as American as apple pie and baseball.”

Extremism, or Attempt to Embarrass?

While the bill’s opponents accused its few Democratic supporters of extremism, Democrats complained that the GOP’s only intent was to embarrass them. Fifty-one voted “present” to protest the procedure.

David Smith of the Human Rights Campaign, a leading gay rights organization, said Republicans were “trying to change the subject from hate crimes to Boy Scouts.” The GOP leadership is resisting Democratic attempts to pass hate crimes legislation this year. Beyond the politics, the legislation offered by Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif., spotlighted the uneasy relationship between the federal government and the Boy Scouts since the organization’s stance toward gays became a national issue. Woolsey said she was a Girl Scout and one of her sons was a Boy Scout “We’re not saying the Boy Scouts are bad; we’re saying that intolerance is bad.” “I know the value of scouting, and that’s why I believe scouting should be available to all boys, not just to some boys,” Woolsey said during Tuesday night’s debate. She was the only Democrat to speak in favor of the legislation.

In contrast, a long line of Republicans rose to condemn the bill.

Debate on Values vs. ‘Political Stunt’“It’s an attack on the fundamental values of America,” said Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah, led by “a small group of extremists on the minority side.” But Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, said Republicans were engaging in a “political stunt” in bringing to the floor a bill that had had no hearings or committee vote and didn’t have a chance of passage. Woolsey said she wasn’t told until Monday evening that Republicans were taking up her legislation. It “was a total surprise to me.” “We’re disappointed that this bill would even be considered,” Boy Scouts spokesman Gregg Shields said. Having a federal charter is an honor and “we hope to continue to live up to that honor,” he added. The Boy Scouts got their federal charter in 1916, six years after it was founded. It is one of about 90 groups with such designation, an honorary title given to patriotic, charitable and education organizations. While it confers no specific benefits, receiving a federal charter is a mark of prestige and national recognition for a group. Among other groups with federal charters are the American Legion, Future Farmers of America, the National Tropical Botanical Garden and the National Ski Patrol. The Supreme Court in a 5-4 decision in June, upheld the Boy Scouts’ ban on homosexuals serving as troop leaders. That ruling may also give legal backing to the 6.2 million-member organization’s rejection of gay youths as members.

Scouts See Conflicting Values The Scouts asserted that homosexual conduct is inconsistent with the values it seeks to instill. Separately in June, President Clinton issued an executive order barring discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in federally conducted education and training programs. The Interior Department in August asked the Justice Department for guidance on how that order affected the holding of Boy Scout Jamborees on federal lands. GOP presidential nominee George W. Bush and other Republicans quickly accused the Clinton administration of trying to throw the scouts off federal lands. But Attorney General Janet Reno, in a statement this month, said the tradition of Boy Scouts using federal lands for camping and other activities could continue. After the June Supreme Court ruling, Clinton said he is “generally against discrimination against gays.” But he refused to criticize the Scouts or the court’s ruling. “The Boy Scouts still are — they’re a great group. They do a lot of good.”