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Published on Thursday, June 29, 2000 in the St Louis Post-Dispatch
A Triumph For Homophobia
The U.S. Supreme Court has endorsed a policy of discrimination and hypocrisy, in a decision that allows the Boy Scouts of America to keep openly gay men from being troop leaders.

The court ruled 5-4 against reinstating James Dale, who became a Cub Scout when he was 8 years old and, worked his way up to Eagle Scout. In 1989, he was appointed an assistant Scout master. But the next year, Mr. Dale, then 19, allowed himself to be identified as gay in a newspaper article. A short time later, the Boy Scouts sent him a letter expelling him with no explanation.

When he asked why, he was told Scout standards for leadership specifically forbid homosexuals.

Mr. Dale sued, contending the Scouts violated New Jersey's anti-discrimination law. The Scouts fought back, saying it is a private organization with the right to choose -- or exclude -- members, and that Mr. Dale's homosexuality violated its standards of being "morally straight" and "clean." The New Jersey Supreme Court ruled in Mr. Dale's favor, but was overturned yesterday by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Writing for the majority, Chief Justice William Rehnquist said that, if the Scouts were forced to abide by the New Jersey law, the organization's First Amendment right to express its view against homosexuality would be compromised. That view flies in the face of past rulings that forced all-male organizations to accept women, and all-white organizations to open their doors to minorities. It puts discrimination in the context of speech, rather than conduct, and therefore threatens to turn back the clock of civil rights.

What makes the decision doubly discouraging, frankly, is that the Boy Scouts of America is a good organization. But the Scouts' embrace of homophobia, now validated by the highest court in the land, endangers the Scouts' reputation for inclusiveness. There's a real possibility that the court ruling will allow the Boy Scouts to exclude gay boys as members, too. Even as it ends, the case continues to expose a broad streak of hypocrisy in the leadership ranks of the Boy Scouts. A statement posted on the Boy Scouts' Web site yesterday reads, in part: "Boy Scouting makes no effort to discover the sexual orientation of any person." In other words, Scouts have a "don't ask, don't tell" policy toward homosexuality.

In two dissenting opinions, Justices John Paul Stevens and David H. Souter point out that the Scouts never publicly pushed the message that homosexuality is incompatible with the values of the organization, until after the organization expelled Mr. Dale.

The most ominous part of the ruling, as Justice Souter noted, is the potential that any group that wants to claim its purpose is to disseminate a specific message -- even if advocating that message has never been carried out publicly -- will be able to use this decision as "an easy trump of any anti-discrimination law."

With this ruling, civil rights advocates will have to work harder than ever to make sure that the right to associate with people of similar mind doesn't degenerate into the freedom to discriminate at will.

2000 St. Louis Post-Dispatch,


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