Scouts’ Ban on Gays Is Prompting Schools To Reconsider Ties

By Mark Walsh — October 25, 2000 7 min read
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Carol Johnson, the superintendent of the Minneapolis schools, had long been an admirer of the Boy Scouts of America. Her two sons were active in the organization, and she had served on the board of the local Scouting council.

And as the leader of the 49,000-student school system since 1997, Ms. Johnson supported the district’s policy of sponsoring troops at some two dozen city schools that had lacked them.

But Ms. Johnson was troubled by the BSA’s national policy prohibiting the participation of homosexuals as leaders or members. The Scouts’ willingness to take the issue to the U.S. Supreme Court, where they won a decision last June declaring that the BSA was a private organization free to exclude homosexuals, prompted her to reconsider her support.

“We are an inclusive organization,” Ms. Johnson said in an interview last week, referring to her school district. “It wouldbe very difficult to continue to partner with them and be consistent with our nondiscrimination policy.”

At a Glance:
Boy Scouts of America

Founded: 1910, chartered by Congress in 1916
Headquarters: Irving, Texas
Scout membership: 3.2 million (2.2 million Cub Scouts, 1 million Boy Scouts)
Other programs: Venturing, a coeducational youth-development program, mostly based in churches, serving some 200,000 young people; Learning for Life, a character education program for use in school classrooms; and Explorer posts, which are coeducational units sponsored by police and fire departments and other workplaces. About 1.5 million young boys and girls are involved in Learning for Life and Exploring combined.
School sponsorship: Public schools or districts sponsor 10,000 Boy Scout troops or Cub Scout packs, serving some 363,000 boys. Many more Scouting units meet in public schools but are sponsored by other community organizations.
SOURCE: Boy Scouts of America

Earlier this month, the Minneapolis school board voted unanimously to end its sponsorship of Boy Scout troops and to prohibit the Scouts from recruiting new members in the public schools. The board cited the nondiscrimination policy, which includes sexual orientation among its protections.

The Minneapolis district is one of dozens from coast to coast that have confronted the issue in the months since the Supreme Court issued its decision in Boy Scouts of America v. Dale. (Read the U.S. Supreme Court‘s majority opinion as well as the dissent.)

The 5-4 ruling said the organization has a First Amendment right of expressive association to exclude those whose viewpoints conflict with its own. (“Ruling on Boy Scouts Could Pose Dilemma for Schools,” July 12, 2000.)

“Nobody is forced to be a Boy Scout, and nobody is forced to be a chartering organization,” Gregg Shields, the national spokesman for the BSA, said last week. “We’re not forcing Boy Scouts of America’s values on anyone. We simply ask people to respect our values and beliefs.”

Public Entities

The Boy Scouts have maintained that policy for years, and some school districts, such as San Francisco and Chicago, distanced themselves from the organization well before the high court’s ruling. But the Dale decision prompted gay-rights groups to call for cities, districts, and charities to reconsider their traditional support for the Scouts.

“Schools, as public entities, cannot be accomplices to discrimination, especially discrimination that hurts our kids,” said Evan Wolfson, a senior staff lawyer with the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, a gay-rights group based in New York City.

Mr. Wolfson argued in the Supreme Court on behalf of James Dale, who was ousted as an assistant scoutmaster when Boy Scouts officials learned he was gay.

The Lambda fund and the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network, or GLSEN, another New York City- based group, have called on school districts to end any special support for the Boy Scouts, such as troop sponsorship, aid in recruiting of members, and favorable deals for use of school facilities.

“Other groups don’t get the sweetheart deals that the Boy Scouts have traditionally gotten,” Mr. Wolfson contended.

One of the first districts to act following the Supreme Court decision was Community School District 2 in New York City, a subdistrict of the city school system that serves a large area of Manhattan.

The District 2 board withdrew its support for the Scouts on Sept. 26 and urged the city’s other community school boards and the central board of education to follow its lead. The citywide board is considering similar action.

Others that have taken action include the Keene, N.H.; Alum Rock, Calif.; Framingham, Mass.; and San Diego districts, according to GLSEN. The Bethel, Ore., school board voted Sept. 11 to bar the Scouts from recruiting in its schools, but it reversed the action a couple of weeks later when the board’s lawyer said it might run into legal problems if it excluded the Boy Scouts but not other groups.

Most districts considering the issue aren’t seeking to bar the Boy Scouts from school facilities altogether. They are simply ending their own sponsorship of troops and limiting access to students for recruitment or other benefits. Many Scouting units that meet in schools are actually sponsored by other community organizations.

However, the 250,000-student Broward County, Fla., district is considering a near-total ban on the Boy Scouts. The district is reviewing leases with all organizations that use its facilities and is considering barring groups that discriminate.

“It is still under review,” said Joe Donzelli, a spokesman for the district.

The Boy Scouts of America appears unfazed by the recent actions by school districts, towns, and United Way chapters.

“It is important to keep in mind that it is still just a few districts that have decided to change their policies, out of thousands of school districts,” said Mr. Shields, the organization’s spokesman.

He cited a vote last month in the U.S. House of Representatives against a bill that would have repealed the federal charter of the Boy Scouts. The measure, sponsored by Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif., was defeated 362-12, while 51 members did not take a position, voting present.

To be sure, in the vast majority of schools across the country, Boy Scout activities are proceeding as always. Troops are organizing camping trips, and members are working to earn merit badges and crafting their Pinewood Derby model race cars.

At Rincon Valley Middle School in Santa Rosa, Calif., the 50 members of Boy Scout Troop 32 have been planning rock-climbing and camping trips with little or no concern about the debate over the organization’s policy excluding homosexuals.

“That has not come up at our school at all,” said Arlen Agapinan, the Rincon Valley principal.

Shutting the Door

It was a different story inMinneapolis, where Ms. Johnson, the superintendent, raised the gay issue at a Boy Scouts recognition dinner where she received an award for her volunteer efforts.

“Just as Boy Scouts has worked in the past to overcome its ethnic and religious barriers, we are challenged once again to pitch the tent larger,” she told those gathered at the Sept. 26 dinner.

On Oct. 10, the Minneapolis school board approved the resolution ending the district’s sponsorship of Scout units and prohibiting recruitment until the Boy Scouts changes its policy excluding gays.

The district had agreed to sponsor troops at several schools where there was no other sponsor, so boys in those schools could benefit from Scouting.

The Boy Scouts will still be able to use the city’s schools, Ms. Johnson stressed. And the district-sponsored troops have been given until the end of the year to find new supporters.

The school board vote has been a headache for the Viking Council of the BSA, which oversees troops in the Minneapolis area.

“This is going to have a negative impact on serving inner- city kids,” said David Dominick, the director of field services for the council. “When they shut the door, it makes it difficult for us to communicate about our opportunities.”

The Minneapolis decision appears even bolder in light of the fact that next month the district is asking voters to renew a $42 million tax levy targeted at maintaining small class sizes.

“We could have played politics and waited until after the election” to vote on the Boy Scouts issue, said Judy Farmer, the school board chairwoman. “We decided that wasn’t a very honest thing to do.”

She said it was difficult to cast her vote against the Boy Scouts because “they do wonderful things with children.”

“But we have a policy of inclusiveness and nondiscrimination,” she said. “It’s pretty hard to say that if this group does some good things, it’s OK if it discriminates. Pretty soon, you really are sanctioning discrimination.”


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