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Suit Challenges Scouts' Use of San Diego Land

Court: ACLU cites justices' ruling backing the group's ban on gays as evidence of bias that city law prohibits.

August 29, 2000|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — Using a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision as leverage, the ACLU filed a federal lawsuit Monday to force the city of San Diego to oust the local Boy Scouts from public property because they discriminate against gays and atheists.

"On this land, the Scouts camp, hike and swim," Linda Hills, executive director of the ACLU chapter in San Diego and Imperial counties, said at a news conference outside Boy Scout headquarters in Balboa Park. "They also teach and practice homophobia and religious intolerance."

While the ACLU has fought the Boy Scouts in other locales over the use of public property--including Chicago, San Francisco, San Luis Obispo, Monterey and Portland, Ore.--the San Diego suit signals a new tactic: use of a June decision by the Supreme Court that favored the Scouts in their long battle for the right to ban gay men from serving as leaders.

In a case involving a gay Scout leader in New Jersey, the high court ruled 5 to 4 that the Boy Scouts have the right to bar those whose behavior or lifestyle is antithetical to the group's values.

The ACLU lawsuit argues that the Boy Scouts cannot fight to preserve their right to discriminate while simultaneously continuing to seek support from city governments that have laws prohibiting discriminatory groups from using public property.

The Boy Scouts lease 18 acres in Balboa Park for $1 a year and have rent-free use of a city-owned aquatic facility on Mission Bay. The Scouts have asked for a long-term early renewal of the Balboa Park lease, which expires in 2007.

Ted Cox, chief executive officer of the Desert-Pacific Council of Boy Scouts of America, said the group's leaders "believe we have every right to be here in Balboa Park." The Boy Scouts' Desert-Pacific region has more than 25,000 members in San Diego and Imperial counties and Yuma, Ariz.

"I don't understand why people can't live and let live," Cox said. "Let the Boy Scouts of America have their views and let other people have their views. It's not fair to pick on the Boy Scouts."

The ACLU has been asking the San Diego City Council for more than a year to terminate the Boy Scouts' leases as a violation of, among other things, the city's Human Dignity Ordinance. But that idea has found no supporters at City Hall except Councilwoman Christine Kehoe, the council's only openly gay member.

"The Boy Scouts have a lot to offer youth," she said. "But it's wrong for them to make discrimination part and parcel of their message."

The issue of the Boy Scouts' use of public property has swirled since 1992, when a Scout leader was fired after revealing that he was gay. The leader, an El Cajon police officer, eventually went to the California Supreme Court in a losing battle for reinstatement by the Boy Scouts.

Cox noted that the city subsidizes the Gay and Lesbian Film Festival and the Gay Men's Chorus under a law in which the city supports groups that "enrich the lives of the people of San Diego" and build better neighborhoods.

"If the city defines those organizations as worthy of subsidies," Cox said, "why should the Boy Scouts be discriminated against because their views happen to run afoul of a segment of San Diego?"

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of two San Diego families who say the Boy Scouts' policy harms them and their children. Both mayoral candidates quickly sided with the Boy Scouts.

"The thing that bothers me is that we have two groups of adults [the ACLU and the Boy Scouts] fighting, and I don't think as a result the kids should be kicked out of Balboa Park," said Supervisor Ron Roberts.

Superior Court Judge Dick Murphy said: "If I'm elected mayor, I'll do everything in my power to keep the Boy Scouts in Balboa Park."

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