Scouts must pack their tents

The Supreme Court ruled in their favor, but membership issues still roil the Scouts.

Not far from the San Diego Zoo, generations of Boy Scouts have pitched their tents in a patch of urban paradise.

Sure, it's hard to ignore the whir of jet airplanes flying over Balboa Park or the cars whizzing by on the freeway behind the eucalyptus trees. Few though were complaining about such intrusions, especially given the $1-a-year lease from the city that granted the Boy Scouts exclusive use of the 15-acre site.

But that special access may soon end. This month, the city settled a lawsuit with the ACLU, which challenged granting preferential access to the the Boy Scouts because of their policy of barring both homosexuals and atheists from membership.

This settlement is just one sign that the Boy Scouts' policy of exclusion remains contentious both inside and outside the organization four years after the US Supreme Court upheld its right to discriminate.

ACLU chapters and gay rights groups are challenging similar decades-old deals around the country that give Boy Scouts exclusive use of public facilities at little or no cost. Local charities in some communities have stopped donating money. And membership is down nationwide, though the Scouts and their detractors can't agree whether the controversy or a sour economy is to blame.

Boy Scout leaders say the organization remains as strong - and relevant - as ever. But by adhering firmly to their membership policies, civil rights activists argue the Boy Scouts risk losing their hallowed place in American society as the providers of a youthful rite of passage for all.

"They've aligned themselves with a set of values not shared with most Americans any more," says Matt Coles, director of the ACLU's National Lesbian and Gay Rights Project in New York. "The longer and harder they hold to them the more irrelevant they become."

To be sure, the Boy Scouts would have suffered no matter how the Supreme Court ruled, says Jay Mechling, author of "On My Honor: Boy Scouts and the Making of American Youth."

Greater openness meant losing support of churches - including the Catholic and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints - who charter 60 percent of scouting groups.

Instead, the Boy Scouts earned the ire of liberals and forced local governments, schools, and charities to reconsider decades of support. Several dozen of the nation's 1,400 United Way chapters have withdrawn funding, though direct donations have helped make up for losses in many cities, the Boy Scout of America National Council says. ACLU chapters challenged exclusive access long ago granted the Boy Scouts to parkland, piers and public buildings.

Concerns that public school districts might block Scouts' access to their facilities pushed Congressional Republicans to include a guarantee of equal access for the Boy Scouts in a federal education bill.

Leading the fight against the Boy Scouts has been Scouting For All, co-founded by teenage Eagle Scout Steven Cozza and his father, Scott. Scott Cozza says the group currently has 10,000 members nationwide, including top officials of the Boy Scout National Council based in Irving, Texas, who are afraid to publicly announce their positions.

"Any form of discrimination is not morally or ethically proper," says Mr. Cozza. "If they don't change their program, they will continue to become a very narrow program for religious fundamentalists."

National Council officials reject such gloomy pronouncements about an organization whose membership has ebbed and flowed throughout its 94-year history. Membership was down 2.7 percent last year compared with 2002.

National Boy Scout of America spokesman Gregg Shields says surveys of recent scouting dropouts suggest the culprits are a sluggish economy and overcommitted families who don't have time to participate, rather than protests against Scouting membership policies.

"Boy Scout programs are terribly relevant today," says Mr. Shields. "I think we're doing very, very well."

Still, the losses are severe in many communities, including Philadelphia, the nation's third largest, where Scouting for All says membership in the Cradle of Liberty chapter has fallen 15 percent.

Controversy erupted last year in Philadelphia when the local council proposed a more lenient policy on gays. The plan was dropped under pressure from the National Council which has resisted similar efforts by other local councils.

Just last week, local civil rights groups pressed the city government at a meeting to rethink the Boy Scout Council's rent-free use of a public building as its headquarters since 1928.

In San Diego, the Boy Scouts have not yet been forced to vacate that Balboa Park campsite and another waterfront public park. The Scouts first developed the camp in a corner of Balboa Park after World War II, later signing a 50-year lease for only $1 per year. The lease was extended in 2001 for 25 years at a cost of $2,500 per year.

Today, the 15-acre site includes small buildings, a general store, and a pool, where scouts learn to tie knots, create arts and crafts and operate a ham radio station. Without the park, Boy Scout leaders fear disadvantaged members will not be able to afford the trip to more distant campgrounds.

"We're hurting the less fortunate parents and Scouts," says assistant scoutmaster Jon Sivers. "What they're really hurting is the kids."

But Mick Rabin, former Eagle Scout and now a school teacher, says the decision is "heartbreaking," but supports efforts to kick the Boy Scouts off camp property unless they open up to gays.

Says Mr. Rabin, who cut his Eagle Scout badge off his old Scout uniform to protest, "They can't be a wholly good organization until they do that."

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