Boy Scouts Sue Over Ban By Florida District

By Mark Stricherz — December 13, 2000 3 min read

The Boy Scouts of America has sued the Broward County, Fla., schools, charging the nation’s fifth-largest district with violating its freedom of speech and association.

The federal lawsuit comes in response to the Broward school board’s decision to bar the organization from using district facilities because of the Scouts’ policy of prohibiting open homosexuals from participating as scoutmasters or members.

In a unanimous vote, the nine-member board of the 259,000-student district decided on Nov. 14 that the Scouts, which have an agreement with the district to use its schools, had violated the district’s policy prohibiting groups that engage in discrimination from using the schools.

“What the school board is trying to do is to use this contract as the basis to discriminate against us, because they disagree with our moral standards on what constitutes a Scout leader,” said Jeffrie A. Herrmann, the executive director of the Scouts’ South Florida Council.

The Boy Scouts have been under pressure from a number of school districts since last June, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the private organization can exclude homosexuals. (“Scouts’ Ban on Gays Is Prompting Schools To Reconsider Ties,” Oct. 25, 2000.)

The chancellor of the 1.1- million student New York City schools notified the New York-area Scouting organization on Dec. 1 that his system’s schools would no longer sponsor Scout troops or provide the group with special access to recruit members.

Schools Chancellor Harold O. Levy also informed the Greater New York Councils of the Boy Scouts that it will be ineligible to bid on future contracts with the district unless its policy barring homosexuals is changed.

Patrick J. Stuhlman, a spokesman for the Greater New York Councils, said his organization plans to work with Mr. Levy to overcome the district’s objections.

‘Blatant Discrimination’

The Boy Scouts’ Florida lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Miami, accuses the Broward County school board and Superintendent Frank L. Till Jr. of engaging in “blatant viewpoint discrimination.”

The Scouts are seeking an injunction to stop the district from enforcing a Dec. 17 deadline, after which the organization has been told it can no longer use school classrooms, cafeterias, or buses. No date has been set for a hearing.

At issue are the laws governing the use of school facilities. Nearly 2,000 boys and 625 adult leaders meet in Broward County school buildings after school hours, according to the South Florida Council of the Boy Scouts, which joined the suit.

The Broward school board maintains that the Scouts broke the district’s 2-year-old nondiscrimination policy which prohibits the use of school facilities by groups that are deemed to discriminate, including on the basis of sexual orientation.

Joe Donzelli, a spokesman for the district, said the U.S. Supreme Court’s June ruling didn’t change the district’s view of discrimination against gay people. “Whether or not the Supreme Court thinks it’s OK, we don’t,” he said.

The Broward school board’s decision conflicts with legal advice given by the Alexandria-based National School Boards Association, said Julie Underwood, the association’s general counsel.

“If they’ve allowed groups like the Girl Scouts to meet, then there’s no way to foreclose a group just because of their beliefs,” Ms. Underwood said. “That’s why we tell schools that they need to determine if they want to open up their school buildings.”

The December issue of the NSBA’s monthly newsletter notes that the organization interprets federal law to mean that schools must stay “viewpoint neutral,” citing four federal cases to bolster its argument.

A group like the Ku Klux Klan could use a school’s facilities, Ms. Underwood said, as long as it was “not disruptive.”

Mr. Donzelli disagreed, saying that the board of the Fort Lauderdale-based district “would not rent to an organization that excludes based on race.”

In the lawsuit, the Boy Scouts say they are being singled out for punishment, because no other organizations have been barred from using the schools since the board established its nondiscrimination policy in 1998.

“We’ve been in those schools for 50 years. It’s not like we’re the new kid on the block,” Mr. Herrmann said.

Nadine Drew, a spokeswoman for the Broward district, said the Scouts “are the first group we have singled out.”

But district leaders will apply the policy to other groups as well, including church groups using district facilities, she said.

A version of this article appeared in the December 13, 2000 edition of Education Week as Boy Scouts Sue Over Ban By Florida District