One of the most quintessentially American organizations - the Boy Scouts - is under siege ... again.
Three months after the Boy Scouts of America won a US Supreme Court ruling permitting the private group to exclude homosexuals as scoutmasters, gay-rights groups across the nation are working to paint the 6 million-strong organization as a bastion of bigots undeserving of community support.
While the campaign is applying pressure in a few areas, it is still too early to determine whether the effort will substantially undercut the Boy Scouts' ability to raise funds, recruit new members, and maintain its once-universal image as a wholesome training ground for future leaders.
If successful, the campaign could force up to 1 million Boy Scouts in 19,000 troops, who meet in public schools or community centers, to find private, nongovernmental sponsors or disband. The remaining 65 percent of troops are sponsored by religious organizations.
Boy Scouts spokesman Gregg Shields says the organization has been fighting in court to protect its values and standards from outside interference for 20 years. He says the Scouts' leadership isn't about to back down now and that the vast majority of Scouts and their parents have decided to remain in scouting.
"We are in virtually every community in America," says Mr. Shields, who adds that youth recruitment grew 4.2 percent during the past year - a period in which the Scouts' antigay policy was headline news nationwide. "We've heard tremendous expressions of support from most of the communities we operate in."
On the other side, gay activists say they are gaining momentum in questioning the motives and policies of the Boy Scouts' leadership.
Some parents are withdrawing their sons from scouting, they say, though there are no firm estimates of how many.
In addition, the Texas-based organization is facing critical questions posed by some local school boards, elected officials, charity administrators, and corporate donors. They want to know why they should continue to support the Boy Scouts in light of a national policy that discriminates against gay men and boys who want to join the Scouts.
The antigay policy runs counter to laws and policies adopted in some states and localities that bar discrimination based on sexual preference.
Donors and public officials are facing a difficult dilemma. They are seeking to balance their desire not to support discrimination against their desire not to hurt tens of thousands of local boys who benefit from Scouting programs and have nothing to do with setting the group's national policies.
At the center of the controversy is a rule enacted by the Boy Scouts' executive board that bars men and boys who are openly homosexual from membership. The board says gay men do not offer the kind of role model they seek to project in Scouting. And they argue that as a private organization, they have a First Amendment right to rely on moral criteria of their own choosing to select leaders.
The US Supreme Court agreed in a 5-to-4 ruling in June.
It marked a setback for those working to end discrimination against gays. But it also marked the beginning of a second campaign by gay activists, aimed at eliminating all public support and special treatment granted to the Scouts.
"Having wrapped themselves in the word 'private' in order to win exemption from the civil rights laws, the organization has forfeited any special privileges, special support, or special sponsorship from public entities when they are going to discriminate against some of the public," says Evan Wolfson, a lawyer with the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund who argued on behalf of gay Scouts in the Supreme Court case.
"They are trying to have it both ways," Mr. Wolfson says. "It is unfair and wrong to expect the taxpayers to pay for a policy that excludes some of our kids."
Shields sees the issue differently. He says just because the Scouts rely on their own moral criteria to select leaders doesn't disqualify the group from receiving government aid on an equal basis with other groups.
"We are a private organization of volunteers and we simply ask to be treated like any other private organization," he says. "If the sewing club or the senior citizens group gets to meet in the community room of the library, we'd like to be treated just like them. But you can't pick on the Boy Scouts specifically because of our beliefs and our values," Shields says. "That would be unconstitutional."
The issue is sparking much debate in south Florida. In Miami-Dade County, the superintendent has indefinitely postponed recruiting by Scouts in public schools. In neighboring Broward County, the superintendent is allowing recruiting to continue, but the policy is under review. In Broward, a county children's services agency concluded that the Scouts do not qualify for a $92,884 grant, because the antigay policy conflicts with county antidiscrimination laws. Nearby, Wilton Manors, Fla., is in the process of passing an ordinance that bars any organization that discriminates from receiving city funding or services. In Fort Lauderdale, the city commission is debating a $4,000 grant to the Boy Scouts - to standing-room only crowds.
Among those weighing whether to continue supporting the Scouts are many United Way chapters. Roughly a dozen have decided to stop funding the Scouts because of the antigay policy. Shields says they represent only a handful of the 1,400 United Way chapters nationwide.
"The vast majority of United Ways that we had support from before the Supreme Court ruling have stuck with us," he says. "The Boy Scouts' mission hasn't changed. If you were with us before, you are probably with us now."
Scott Cozza, a former Scout leader, has been fighting Scouts policies for more than two years. He is president of a group called Scouting for All. "If we had known that the Boy Scouts discriminated against people who are gay and atheists, we would not have joined the Scouts," Mr. Cozza says. "The Boy Scouts are destroying themselves. They are becoming a very narrow, exclusive organization driven by one fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible. Scouting is supposed to be open to all views, not just one view."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society