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Laguna P.D. Fights Scout Ban on Gays : Bias: City officials cite municipal law barring discrimination based on sexual orientation in challenge of Boy Scouts policy for police Explorer program. The chief says they might go to court.

September 18, 1993|LESLIE EARNEST | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

LAGUNA BEACH — In the first such challenge in Orange County, city officials said Friday they are notifying the Boy Scouts of America that the Police Department won't comply with the organization's policy banning openly gay people from joining the Police Explorer program.

"We resent the fact that, through a clearly discriminatory policy, they are dictating to us who can or cannot be a member or adviser of the Explorer scout group," Police Chief Neil J. Purcell Jr. said. "I like to have it out in the open and have it known we're not going to discriminate."

It was unclear Friday whether the city would simply disregard the policy, challenge it with a lawsuit, or whether the Boy Scouts of America would suspend its Explorer program here.

Purcell said the city, which has a large gay population and is the only community in Orange County with a law prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation, may battle the policy in court.

"It's not a threat . . . but we're going to fight that point and possibly even go to court on it," he said. "I don't know where the chips are going to fall." The City Council has not yet considered legal action over the policy.

City Manager Kenneth C. Frank added, "Anybody who wants to apply, whether heterosexual or homosexual, will be welcome into the Explorer program here in Laguna Beach."

Kent Gibbs, director of Boy Scouts of America's Orange County Council in Costa Mesa, said Friday city officials "must conform to the rules of the Boy Scouts in order for the program to continue."

He said this is apparently the first time the policy has been criticized by a law enforcement agency in Orange County, and although it has been attacked in lawsuits "in many parts of the nation, all rulings have been in favor of the Boy Scouts."

The organization's national spokesman, Richard Walker, said the Boy Scouts of America's policy banning gays is supported by most parents of Scouts.

"Parents overwhelmingly tell us that this is not a role model they want for their children and, accordingly, we do not permit avowed homosexuals as members or as leaders," Walker said. "There's a tremendous amount of freedom for the local (Explorer) councils, but this is not one of them."

Last year, the Boy Scouts of America terminated the El Cajon Police Department's Explorer program because the officer who coordinated that program revealed he was gay.

In response to that incident, then-San Diego Police Chief Bob Burgreen severed his department's ties with the Boy Scouts of America and its Explorer program because of the policy excluding homosexuals.

Similar challenges to the policy have been raised in the San Francisco Bay Area. The position of Laguna Beach appears different from others because the city apparently prefers to continue the Explorer program, but using its own standards regarding gays.

The Police Explorer program in Laguna Beach, which now has about eight members, started in the early 1970s, and some members have joined the police force here.

The program is for young people, ages 14 to 21, who are interested in a law enforcement career. Explorers help with traffic control, search and rescue activities and security at high school games and special events.

Laguna Beach City Councilman Robert F. Gentry, who is openly gay, praised Purcell's action and said city leaders understand that the organization could respond by dismantling the Police Explorer program in Laguna Beach.

"We're taking a big chance," he said. "And I think it's a very courageous step on the part of the city."

"I think we all want to maintain the Explorer program because it's an excellent one, and the Boy Scouts of America is an excellent organization," Gentry said. "I was a Boy Scout. I know."

"We are very happy with the program," Councilman Wayne L. Peterson said, but "the city has an ordinance that we do not discriminate and I don't see how we can make an exception for anyone."

Purcell said it would be costly for the city to attempt to provide a similar program on its own because of the insurance required and training involved. Also, members could not attend the Boy Scouts of America's Police Explorer Academy or other programs.

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