Scouts defending gay ban in court, within own ranks

Some troop sponsors, regional councils call policy into question

November 25, 1999|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The Boy Scouts of America, already putting on a full defense in court of its ban on homosexuals, now finds it has to defend that policy within its own ranks, too -- especially among groups that sponsor Scout troops.

The future of the ban depends heavily on the U.S. Supreme Court. The Scouts have appealed a New Jersey Supreme Court ruling that struck down the exclusion of gays as youth members or adult leaders.

Signs of Scouting's internal debate over the ban are expected to emerge anew next week when a group of troop-sponsoring organizations reportedly plans to line up on the opposite side in that case.

The list of those opposing the ban will be revealed when they file a brief in the court, supporting an ousted New Jersey assistant scoutmaster, James Dale, who is gay.

But that is only the latest indication of dissent on the issue within the Boy Scouts, and the controversy building inside the organization has led at least to a preliminary study of whether to continue the ban.

The proposal for the study -- recommended at Scouting's national meeting in May by the Indianhead Scout Council of St. Paul, Minn. -- is in the hands of the national body's Committee on Relationships, which deals directly with sponsoring organizations.

The idea for a study gained new impetus earlier this month when a second regional Scouting organization -- the Narragansett Council, which oversees troops throughout Rhode Island -- added its support.

That council manages one of Scouting's premier outdoor sites, Camp Yawgoog, which was recently embroiled in a series of incidents that put new emphasis on the policy against homosexuals. An Eagle Scout was barred from a summer job after being questioned about his sexual orientation; a Scout leader was asked to leave after using a photo of Dale for target practice; and another leader was arrested on molestation charges.

In a resolution, the Narragansett Council said, "Fundamental Scouting principles urge us to value and respect human diversity." It said Scouting should deal with the membership dispute "before growing countrywide discussion interferes."

Sources familiar with Scouting's review of the gay ban say that the idea for a study has been put on hold by the National Executive Board until after the Supreme Court acts. The board examined the idea at a private meeting last month but decided not to act then, the sources said. The Scouts' national office would neither confirm nor deny the report.

The justices are expected to decide next month whether to hear the Scouts' appeal.

David A. Rice of Petaluma, Calif., president of Scouting for All, a group formed last year to oppose the gay ban, said in an interview this week: "There is a broad feeling within Scouting that change must occur."

Divisive issue

The issue, it appears, has become divisive within the Scouting community. The nation's largest sponsor of the Boy Scouts movement, the United Methodist Church -- with 11,739 Scout units in its churches serving more than 421,500 boys -- has its own internal division on the subject.

The Methodist Board of Church and Society, the denomination's social action arm, strongly condemned the gay ban last month. But earlier, the United Methodist Men supported the Scouts' right to choose its own membership. The denomination as a whole has taken no position.

The national organization of the Unitarian Universalist denomination has opposed the gay ban, and several regional religious entities that sponsor troops -- such as the Episcopal Diocese of California -- and individual churches and synagogues have objected to it.

This fall in Rhode Island, the Boy Scouts found the policy assailed in several forums. At the annual corporate fund-raising luncheon in Providence, a Fleet Bank vice president accepted a "corporate citizenship award" from the Scouts, then promptly denounced the ban. So did Providence's mayor.

After the luncheon, the United Way of Southern New England, a source of Scout funding, adopted a statement expressing its concern "that Scouts and adult leaders who merely identify themselves as being gay may be denied access."

Then, on Nov. 18, came the Narragansett Council's plea for a review of the ban.

Scouts gather support

The Scouts, on the other hand, are gathering support from other groups for the membership policy and for the organization's appeal to the Supreme Court. Much of that support appears to be coming from conservative advocacy groups -- some in the forefront of efforts to resist what they call the "homosexual agenda" -- and from conservative members of Congress.

In recent briefs filed at the court, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, the Rev. Jerry Falwell's Liberty Alliance and three conservative legal advocacy groups -- the American Center for Law and Justice, Liberty Counsel and the Pacific Legal Foundation -- have sided with the Scouts.

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