Breaking camp

National | LAW: The ACLU gains ground in evicting the Boy Scouts from a San Diego park

Issue: "Considering the heavens," Jan. 24, 2004

WITH ITS CAMPSITES, BB GUN and archery ranges, swimming pool, and a shop brimming with wilderness gadgets, Camp Balboa might just be boy heaven. Just ask Austin and Everett Hom.

Austin, 11, a San Diego sixth-grader, joined Cubs Scouts in second grade. His brother Everett, now 9, donned his Tiger Cub ball-cap during first grade. Instead of spending summers vegging out on video games, the brothers shot bows and arrows, learned woodcrafts, and studied nature at Camp Balboa, a pine-shaded, 15.6-acre spread tucked into the northwest corner of San Diego's Balboa Park.

"When we go there, we learn stuff and earn badges and pins and belt loops for our achievements," said Everett, a soft-spoken "A" student with brown eyes and a shy smile. "The favorite thing I did there was-everything," said big brother Austin. "Everything was fun."

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The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) wants to put a stop to all that. That's because Camp Balboa is situated on public land, and the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) require members and leaders to affirm faith in God and be "morally straight." That means no homosexuality allowed, and it provoked the ACLU's now-familiar refrain: The group says BSA's Camp Balboa lease violates separation of church and state.

The group in 2000 sued San Diego and BSA on behalf of two couples-one lesbian and one agnostic-both raising sons they said wanted to be Scouts. The city initially defended BSA's lease, which had been in effect since 1957 at a rate of $1 a year. In 2001, the city council even granted the Scouts a 25-year extension. But U.S. District Judge Napoleon Jones Jr. in July ruled for the ACLU. Last week, the San Diego City Council decided it was time to bail out: The city forked over a $950,000 settlement to the ACLU and left BSA to fight alone.

But the Scouts may not fight solo for long. Eric Treene, a religious-discrimination attorney for the U.S. Justice Department, said his agency may be interested in intervening. In a letter to BSA attorney George Davidson, Mr. Treene said the city's decision to exclude the Scouts from its policy of leasing city property to nonprofit groups raises "serious First Amendment concerns."

San Diego leases property to more than 100 other groups, some of whom define membership along religious and racial lines. Among them: the Jewish Community Center, the Black Police Officers Association, and two Presbyterian churches. Meanwhile, BSA Desert Pacific Council spokeswoman Thyme Osborne points out that Camp Balboa is open not only to the Council's 23,500 Scouts, but also to the general public. "We invite all people to use the camp, regardless of their beliefs and policies," Ms. Osborne said. "Gay and lesbian groups can use our facilities and have been invited to do so." She noted that the city's homosexual community center and an area PFLAG chapter (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) did not respond to letters inviting them to use Camp Balboa.

Still, the city council by a 6-2 margin voted to abandon BSA. Only Mayor Dick Murphy, a former superior court judge, and council member Jim Maddafer, a BSA assistant scoutmaster with two sons in Scouting, voted to see the lawsuit through.

Among the anti-Scout voters: Openly lesbian council member Toni Atkins, who in 2001 led the opposition to BSA's lease extension. Ms. Atkins framed the council's decision as a financial one, but more political reasons may have driven her vote.

Long active in San Diego gay politics, Ms. Atkins helped draft the agenda for the San Diego Democratic Club, a homosexual group whose platform opposes "government contracts with or government subsidies to organizations that discriminate on the basis of ... sexual orientation." In 1999, during a clash over the constitutionality of a 43-foot cross that has stood on Mt. Soledad since the mid-1950s, Ms. Atkins said she "would be supportive of eliminating" the cross.

Attorney Davidson doesn't think the ACLU will be able to eliminate Camp Balboa. BSA councils across the country have successfully battled religious discrimination in charitable giving and public-property use. In 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court found the Boy Scouts' faith-and-morals policies constitutional, and has ruled at least three times in favor of religious groups' use and rental of public property.

That makes sense to Boy Scout Austin Hom, who has studied the Bill of Rights in history class. To kick the Scouts out of Camp Balboa "wouldn't be OK," he said. "They shouldn't have the right to kick anybody out just for their religion."

Lynn Vincent
Lynn Vincent

Lynn is a senior writer for WORLD Magazine and the best-selling author of 10 non-fiction books.


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