Wider openings for Boy Scouts

Three years after the federal government ordered public schools to keep their doors open to the Boy Scouts of America, the US Department of Education is poised to revisit its rules regarding "patriotic youth groups" - a move likely to grant the Boy Scouts even more access rights.

In recent years, some public schools across the country have tried to limit or eliminate their ties with the Boy Scouts and affiliated organizations, including the Cub Scouts, because they exclude homosexuals and atheists. The National Education Association, a teachers' union, reported in 2003 that at least 14 school districts - including New York City's - had cut off their sponsorships of the Boy Scouts.

In response to the threat of campus lockouts, Congress in 2001 voted to cut federal funding from any school that banned the Boy Scouts or any similar group from "open forum" access. "We simply ask that if other groups are meeting in school rooms or gymnasiums or school facilities, we want the same kind of treatment," says Gregg Shields, spokesman for the Boy Scouts.

The legislation, Mr. Shields says, helped school districts "recognize their constitutional obligations. It's avoided costly and time-consuming litigation."

But only a "handful" of cases have come up under the existing regulations, says Kenneth Marcus, head of civil rights at the Department of Education.

Schools can still choose to close their properties to the Boy Scouts - or the Little League, Girl Scouts, or other designated "patriotic youth" organizations - as long as they treat other groups the same way. Mr. Marcus says schools can still choose to not sponsor scout troops.

So why add more regulations to the books three years after the initial rule went into effect? "What we're doing now is proposing to the public the specific details of how we intend to enforce it," says Marcus.

Naomi Gittins, senior staff attorney for the National School Boards Association, says the proposed new policies could grant youth groups even more access to campuses by expanding the definition of a "public forum."

A school that allows the public to use its property only for education-related events, for example, may have to open its doors to the Boy Scouts too, she says. "It takes away the school's prerogative to say whether the Boy Scouts fit in with their parameters."

Considering the timing of the announcement about the policy change - including a press conference at an Arkansas elementary school featuring the state's governor - some critics see political considerations at work.

"Politics is politics, and it probably has something to do with the campaign and all that," says Scott Cozza, president of the Scouting for All organization, which supports opening the Boy Scouts to gays. "It's a disgrace that our public schools are forced by our current administration and the federal government to support an organization that discriminates against its own citizens."

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