LOS ANGELES — For 90 years the Boy Scouts have been seen as a positive moral force in the United States — a character-building rite of passage for millions of young men.
And despite efforts by homosexual activists and a handful of communities and religious groups to punish the Scouts for its policies excluding homosexuals and atheists, most Americans still appear to be firm in their support for the organization.
Although the Boy Scouts’ membership policies were upheld last year by the Supreme Court in the case of Dale v. Boy Scouts of America, the exclusion of openly homosexual individuals has triggered a few anti-Scout moves.
In Los Angeles, the City Council voted 11-0 on Nov. 28 to cut ties with the Boy Scouts, and called on all city departments to evaluate their relationship with the Scouts in light of the city's non-discrimination policy. Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg, an openly lesbian member whose term was about to expire, led the move.
“This is an organization that fought all the way to the United States Supreme Court for its right to discriminate,” Goldberg said after the vote, the Los Angeles Daily News reported. “They thought there would be no consequences. Well, there has to be.”
Oddly enough, one of the council's targets, the Explorer Program, allows both boys and girls and does not require the Scout oath or the other “controversial” exclusions.
In Broward County, Fla., the Boy Scouts have been “evicted from schools,” according to Gregg Shields, national spokesman for the Scouts. And in New York City, which has 33 school districts, “three have made a nominal withdrawal” from cooperation with the Scouts, Shields said.
But while these isolated cases have received a great deal of media coverage, Boy Scout officials say that support is still strong across the country.
Hugh Travis, scout executive for the Boy Scouts of America's Western Los Angeles County Council, told the Register that while the Los Angeles City Council has come out against the Boy Scouts, in the suburbs of Los Angeles, “The Lancaster City Council and Palmdale City Council voted unanimously in favor of the Boy Scouts.”
Added Travis, “Santa Clara is expected to do the same.”
Even in Los Angeles, there has been considerable sympathy for the Scouts.
At a rally near city hall in early December, hundreds of demonstrators protested the council's decision, and Travis said the City Council has been “deluged” with pro-scout phone calls.
Manuel Gomez, a Los Angeles resident and former Boy Scout, says that the City Council's position is “not realistic.”
“That kind of thinking is dangerous,” Gomez said, “because they are not looking at the overall advantages of [the Boy Scouts].”
Noting that the armed forces also continue to exclude those who are openly homosexual, Gomez asked, “What are they going to do next, abolish the military?”
Where the Boy Scouts have been targeted, they are not going quietly.
In Broward County, they are suing for the right to use school facilities since “the schools are being used by other organizations,” said Scouts spokesman Shields.
And in New York, Shields said, when angry pro-Scout parents demanded to know what the Queens School Board planned to do, “they were told by the School Board that there was no intention to back out” of support.
Los Angeles Scout executive Travis sees a positive aspect of the attacks. “We have been passive too long,” he told the Register, adding that the Boy Scouts “want to stand up for what is good and right.”
Jews Are Divided
Some liberal-minded religious groups have been drawn into the fray.
The Unitarian Universalists have condemned the Boy Scout's membership policies, and in a memo dated Jan. 5, the Joint Commission on Social Action of the Reform Jewish Movement argued that the policy against homosexuals was “incompatible with our consistent belief that every individual — regardless of sexual orientation — is created in the image and likeness of God and [is] deserving of equal treatment.”
Rabbi Dan Polish, the commission's director, told the Register, “This statement is a way of coping with the fact that the core values of the Boy Scouts of America and the Reform Jewish Movement are incompatible.”
But many Jews disagree with Rabbi Polish's perspective. According to Hugh Travis, when “seven Jewish temples kicked [the Scouts] out, those [troops] were immediately picked up by Conservative and Orthodox synagogues.”
Said Irv Rubin, chairman of the Jewish Defense League, “We are absolutely, unalterably, 100% opposed to what this Reform Movement is trying to do to the Boy Scouts.”
According to Rubin, the Scouts have a constitutional right to associate with whomever they wish, in the same way that “B'nai Brith, and even Jewish war veterans for that matter, don't allow in gentiles.”
The Scouts’ Shields said that even among Reform Jewish congregations there is no anti-Scouts consensus. Several Reform congregations have remained committed to the Scouts, he said, citing Reform Rabbi Peter Hyman of Philadelphia, the chairman of the National Jewish Committee on Scouting, as a prominent example.
Father Jim Maher of St. Francis de Sales Church in Sherman Oaks, Calif., a few miles from downtown Los Angeles, said that there is no move to get rid of Scout Troop 139, which meets on the church's property.
And there is little apparent hostility among the local Jewish community toward Troop 139 either; in fact, most of its members and “all of the board members are Jewish,” Father Maher told the Register.
Father Maher cautioned that Troop 139 and the Archdiocese of Los Angeles would not accept the exclusion by the Scouts of a person who had homosexual tendencies but was leading a chaste lifestyle (a situation that has not arisen). But when the Scouts’ membership policies became a hot-button issue, he assured Troop 139 that “we would stand behind the truth and not run them off the property.”
In spite of all of the controversy, Gregg Shields says that the majority of Americans, religious and non-religious, support scouting. “Sixty-five percent of [Scout troops] are chartered by religious organizations,” Shields noted.
And, Shields said, national support can be gauged by the resounding defeat of a proposal last year to revoke the Scouts’ federal charter. On Sept. 13, the House of Representatives reaffirmed the charter by a vote of 362-12.
Andrew Walther writes from Los Angeles.