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Scouts on the outs

National | Under attack in several courtrooms, the BSA is in a struggle to preserve its very identity

Issue: "Honest Abe Rosenthal," March 14, 1998

These are complicated days for the Boy Scouts of America. Last week, a New Jersey appeals court ruled that the BSA discriminated against a homosexual scoutmaster when it ousted him. And later this month, the California Supreme Court is scheduled to rule on whether the Boy Scouts can keep out of their ranks homosexuals, atheists, and even girls. What's worse, scout leaders are lamenting, those seem to be the only ones who are vocal about wanting to join.

"I remember in my fourth-grade elementary class, if you weren't in Scouting, you weren't anything," scout leader Jerry Asmus recounted at last summer's Jamboree. Now, Mr. Asmus explained, "These kids don't talk about it. You go to school and you don't talk about it."

As if to prove his point, the Chesapeake, Va., scoutmaster declined to mention his son's name; he said he was afraid the youth would be teased when he returned to school. These aren't the only mixed signals today's Scouts are receiving. Just last summer, when the annual Jamboree brought 35,000 boys to Fort A.P. Hill in Virginia, the theme was "Character Counts." The keynote speaker was President Clinton.

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And like the president's situation, the legal process may figure prominently in BSA's future.

In that New Jersey case, the state supreme court will likely hear an appeal in the dismissal of scoutmaster James Dale, a 27-year-old homosexual. The former Eagle Scout was ousted in 1992, when he revealed his sexual preference. Mr. Dale successfully sued the Texas-based Boy Scouts of America. His argument to the appeals court centered on the Boy Scout Oath itself, which requires Scouts to keep "physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight." He contended that homosexuality is not immoral, and therefore not grounds for dismissal from the organization.

Even though Mr. Dale prevailed, the court has no grounds to force the BSA to change the policy. It does, however, have the ability to force the organization to sever its ties to schools, police and fire departments, and other public agencies.

Two brothers in Orange County, Calif., Michael and William Randall, were expelled from the Boy Scouts because they refused to acknowledge a duty to God (also a part of the Oath). Their father, an attorney, and the ACLU are representing these underage atheists. Their strategy: attempting to portray the Boy Scouts as a business, rather than a private club. Because BSA sells uniforms, camping supplies, and literature, and because it engages in public relations with a paid staff, it's primarily a business, the attorneys are arguing. If the California Supreme Court agrees, then the Boy Scouts would be subject to California laws that prohibit businesses from discriminating because of sex, sexual orientation, or religion.

Any ruling in that case will likely extend to several similar suits in California, including one claim from a 12-year-old girl. Katrina Yeaw has sued to join because, according to her lawyers, she wants to learn canoeing, camping, and other outdoor skills. Her twin brother, Daniel, is a Boy Scout.

There are other challenges. The city of Chicago settled a suit brought by the ACLU to remove all the Explorer posts from city departments (the Explorers are older Scouts who focus on a particular field, such as firefighting, law enforcement, or aviation). Some 30 posts were affected; a BSA spokesman says those posts have all found new sponsors in the private sector.

"All of this is about whether we have the legal right to maintain standards," BSA's Gregg Shields explained. "We feel we have that right, as a private, voluntary organization, and we're asking that others respect that right."

Mr. Shields says the Scouts will remain courteous and kind, but also loyal to the 90-year-old group's founding principles. "We haven't changed," he says, noting the Boy Scouts have held to two tenets: belief in God ("we teach that duty to God comes before duty to self and others") and in traditional values ("we feel that a person who engages in homosexual conduct is not a good role model for those values. It's that simple").

Simple, but costly. Thirty years ago, there were 4.4 million Boy Scouts. Since then, while the population has grown by 50 million, the number of Scouts has dropped to 4.2 million. There is some slight growth: 3.5 percent last year, Mr. Shields reports.

"We're continuing to grow and we're continuing to shape young men," says Mr. Shields. "We haven't changed, and we won't change. We're standing firm."

But in today's hostile environment, it seems most of the stands they're taking are witness stands.

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