WASHINGTON — Private organizations have a right to select their leaders on the basis of moral or other criteria of their own choosing - even if that means excluding homosexuals, atheists, and agnostics.
In a victory for the Boy Scouts of America, the US Supreme Court ruled yesterday that the Constitution allows organizations - rather than judges or state lawmakers - to determine who should hold leadership positions.
For the Boy Scouts, that means it can exclude homosexuals from leadership positions in troops across the nation, even in states that outlaw discrimination based on sexual preference.
In asserting the constitutional right of Americans to associate with whom they choose, the court allows private groups of like-minded individuals the freedom to determine their own membership policies.
The court's decision was absolutely essential to "validating the Boy Scouts' right to private association based on their moral beliefs," says Janet LaRue of the Family Research Council in Washington. "Every private association in the country was in danger: student religious groups, churches, and their schools."
The decision is a setback to gay-rights activists, who saw this case as an opportunity to break down barriers that have prevented homosexuals from gaining full access to mainstream America. They argued that the Scouts should examine the character of scoutmasters and other leaders rather than rejecting an individual solely because he is gay.
But in a 5-to-4 decision, the high court found that, because the Boy Scouts is a private group, it is shielded by the First Amendment from compliance with state antidiscrimination laws. Such laws would have required the Boy Scouts to reinstate an openly gay man as an assistant scoutmaster in a New Jersey troop.
In reaching its decision, the court overturned a New Jersey Supreme Court ruling. The state court found that the Boy Scouts, with its widespread membership, was not a private organization but rather a "public accommodation" like a hotel or restaurant and, thus, must comply with state antidiscrimination laws.
A majority of high-court justices disagreed with this view, finding that even though the Boy Scouts has a national membership and is open to all boys who embrace its principles, it is nonetheless a private group.
It appears that homosexuality is gaining greater societal acceptance, Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote. "But this is scarcely an argument for denying First Amendment protection to those who refuse to accept those views. The First Amendment protects expression, be it of the popular variety or not."
The court upheld the idea that a group may rely in part on moral criteria - of its own choosing - to determine qualifications for membership and leadership roles.
At issue was the case of James Dale, an Eagle scout and assistant scoutmaster at a troop in New Jersey's Monmouth County. Mr. Dale was removed from his voluntary post after Boy Scout leaders learned he was gay. Dale sued the Boy Scouts under a state law that bars discrimination based on sexual orientation and won his case in the New Jersey Supreme Court last year.
Lawyers for the Boy Scouts say the organization believes that homosexual activity is immoral and that it is a direct violation of the Scout Oath, which calls on Scouts to be "morally straight."
Dale's lawyers say there is no reason that a homosexual can't be an exceptional role model for a Boy Scout troop.
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