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Boy Scouts of America  
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The Boy Scouts in Court

Such tensions within the Boy Scouts have proven terribly difficult for self-identified gay men. As gay men and lesbians have gained considerable ground in politics in the past thirty years, they have challenged the Boy Scouts' exclusionary definitions of masculinity. Gay Boy Scouts and leaders have forced the organization to confront its own fears about pedophilia and have tried to show the organization the difference between homosexuals and child-abusers.

More specifically, they have argued that the Boy Scout Oath--"On my honor I promise I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country, and to obey the scout law, to help other people at all times, to keep myself physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight."--should not be interpreted to exclude homosexuals. It is perfectly possible, they argue, for gay people to be "morally straight."

Sponsor Message.

These attempts to promote greater tolerance in the Boy Scouts have turned into lengthy court battles. Two major court cases have shaped the contours of the legal debate surrounding whether or not the Boy Scouts of America can legally bar gay men and boys from its membership.

In 1981, Timothy Curran challenged the Boy Scouts gay ban. An Eagle Scout with an exemplary record, he came out to his scoutmaster and his troop without difficulty. But when the national leadership discovered he was gay and wanted to become an adult leader in the group, they expelled him from the organization. Curran sued the Boy Scouts in 1981.

Curran's lawyers argued that the Boy Scouts' refusal to admit homosexuals, atheists, and agnostics violated the State of California's Unruh Civil Rights Act, which stipulates that businesses that operate in the state cannot discriminate on the basis of religious belief or sexual orientation. The Boy Scouts countered that, notwithstanding its charter by the United States Congress and the sponsorship of many of its troops by tax-supported institutions such as police or fire departments, it was a private organization entitled to determine its own membership.

Ultimately, in 1998 the California Supreme Court sided with the Boy Scouts and ruled that it was not a business and therefore exempt from the Unruh Civil Rights Act. In California, at least, the Boy Scouts of America was allowed to maintain its ban on homosexual members.

Another Eagle Scout and former assistant scoutmaster, James Dale, sued the Boy Scouts when they dismissed him in 1990. He had been active in a New Jersey troop during the 1980s, but the Monmouth Council of the BSA forced him out when they read about his membership in a gay student group at Rutgers University in a newspaper article.

Ruling against Dale, New Jersey superior court judge Patrick McGann accused Dale of "moral depravity" and used material from the Bible to support his siding with the Boy Scouts' policy. Dale and his lawyers appealed the case, and the state appellate court ruled that the Boy Scouts was a "public accommodation" and did indeed have to obey the state's anti-discrimination law.

The Boy Scouts appealed the case to the United States Supreme Court. In June 2000, a bitterly divided Court ruled 5-4 that the New Jersey law banning discrimination against homosexuals did not apply to the Boy Scouts. Citing the organization's First Amendment right of freedom of association, the U.S. Supreme Court supported the organization's policy of banning gay members and leaders.

The Struggle Continues

Even though the Supreme Court decision has allowed the Boy Scouts to discriminate against homosexuals, in reality, the issue has by no means been resolved. As Jay Mechling argues, in spite of the attempts by the BSA's national leadership in Irving, Texas to impose uniform policies, the "Boy Scout experience" is as diverse as its membership, and the issue of homosexuality is by no means treated consistently in every troop.

He writes, "The dynamic, interactive nature of the Boy Scout experience means that the organization does not create a single sort of boy or man. Despite the national organization's wishes (maybe fantasies), having a uniform program does not guarantee that the troops crank out a uniform product--the God-fearing, highly moral, heterosexual adult male of Boy Scout rhetoric."

As a result of its discriminatory policies, many former supporters of the BSA have withheld funds. Perhaps chief of these are United Way and Community Chest charities that are committed to their own non-discrimination policies. Other public agencies and some religious organizations, most notably the Universalist Unitarians, have also withdrawn sponsorship of the Boy Scouts as a result of their policies.

However, in most cases, when agencies such as the United Way withhold funds from BSA chapters, the money is diverted into other programs sponsored by the BSA, such as the "Learning for Life" program, which generally adopts the policies of sponsoring organizations, such as churches or schools. Hence, the BSA has been able to depict itself as beleaguered by "politically correct" civic organizations bowing to pressure from homosexuals, which has led to increased contributions from its conservative base, while not actually losing very much funding from the mainstream.

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