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Published in Print: June 20, 2001, as Be Prepared: Senate Vote Would Assure Scouts' Access to Schools

Be Prepared: Senate Vote Would Assure Scouts' Access to Schools

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The Senate voted narrowly last week to withhold federal funds from school districts that close their doors to the Boy Scouts of America based on the group's exclusion of homosexuals.

Proposed by Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., the amendment to the main federal education law, now undergoing reauthorization in Congress, passed 51-49 on June 14. The vote generally fell along party lines—Republicans in support, Democrats against—though eight Democrats and six Republicans broke ranks. The House passed a similar provision last month on a voice vote.

Both houses' provisions would authorize the Department of Education to withhold federal aid from any district with a "designated open forum" that denied access to the Boy Scouts or other federally chartered youth groups having membership or leadership criteria "that prohibit the acceptance of homosexuals."

Both Sen. Helms and Rep. Van Hilleary, R-Tenn., the House sponsor, have said the measure was a response to pressure on schools to kick out the Boy Scouts after the organization defended its exclusion of homosexuals all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The court ruled 5-4 last year that the organization had a First Amendment right of expressive association to exclude those whose viewpoints conflict with its own.

"Radical militants continue to attack this respectable organization," Sen. Helms said on the Senate floor in support of his amendment to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

Onerous for Schools?

Some observers have suggested that the language of the measure does not seriously alter current law, because under the First Amendment, schools that have established an open forum for outside organizations may not discriminate based on the viewpoint of any group.

But opponents of the measure said it could still be onerous for schools.

"This amendment would be much broader than the Equal Access Act," said Julie Underwood, the general counsel of the National School Boards Association, referring to a 1984 federal law that requires secondary schools receiving federal money to permit student clubs to meet on an equal basis.

The Equal Access Act contains no provision for financial penalties, but the Boy Scouts amendment would allow the government to withhold all federal education funds from districts that violated it, she added.

"That's a big club to hold over school districts," she said.

By a 52-47 vote, the Senate passed a separate amendment that undercuts Sen. Helms' measure. The amendment offered by Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., would require schools to provide equal access to youth groups regardless of their views on sexual orientation.

Her measure carries no financial penalties for schools that deny access.

Vol. 20, Issue 41, Page 35

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