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Scouts Pledge to Persevere in Face of Opposition to Ban on Gays

Nationwide, foes of the policy have taken a new oath, pulling local support for the organization, which stands firm in its prohibition.

November 14, 2000|CLAUDIA KOLKER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

IRVING, Texas — Small feet manfully apart, eyes fixed on the horizon, a bronze schoolboy guards the headquarters of the Boy Scouts of America. From his soulful gaze to his eternal vigilance, the metal boy personifies a Scout ideal: unbudging loyalty.

The Scouts could do with more of that these days.

It's been in relatively short supply since June, when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Scouts' policy of barring gays as leaders and troop members. Since then, the national organization has endured a forest fire of protests from cities, charities, even some Scout troops themselves.

From Minneapolis to Miami, school and city groups have barred Scouts from meeting or recruiting on their property. The issue is carving deep breaches in some communities, and public and private donors have withdrawn at least $1 million in support. Even some young Scouts are speaking up, including 93 boys in the Montclair, N.J., Cub Scout pack who last month signed a petition against the antigay rule.

At Scouting's ground zero, a charmless brick box 15 minutes from Dallas, spokesman Gregg Shields waves off the protests like they're gnats on a hiking trail.

It's been 20 years, Shields says, since the organization first was sued for excluding atheists and gays.

"This is not a new issue," he says evenly. "We're focusing on the mission. And the mission is to build programs that build the character of America's young people."

Membership, he says, has climbed steadily in recent years, now thriving at 6.2 million boys. Though the Scouts always seek new members--most recently courting Latinos in border states--Shields says the recruiting is not in response to bad publicity.

And Scouts have recently enjoyed a spate of unsolicited donations. In Pittsburgh, an anonymous donor gave $1.5 million to two area Scout councils, saying it was a reaction to recent protests. The First Baptist Church of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., mustered a special collection for the Boy Scouts and raised $10,200, Shields says. Another Fort Lauderdale church, which charters several Scout groups, sent $50,000. A Florida philanthropist donated $40,000, Shields says, because "he admired our dedication to values."

Plenty of other sponsoring groups and Scout families have ducked the fray entirely--or frankly agree with the Scouts.

"Nothing has come up here at all" pertaining to the Supreme Court ruling, says Loretta Simon, a spokeswoman for the Dallas Independent School District. Nor does she expect it to become an issue. "We don't make policies based on everybody else's decisions."

In the best possible sense, Shields says, Scouting is a kind of Camping Trip That Time Forgot. The Boy Scouts has kept the same institutional values since its U.S. inception 90 years ago, though it now translates Scouting literature into languages ranging from Spanish to Hmong and teaches leaders about issues such as attention deficit disorder.

Inside the modest, Norman Rockwell-bedecked offices near Dallas, Scout administrators go about their work unruffled by the furor, Shields says. Nevertheless, a whiff of bunker air surrounds the place.

Although Shields consents to an interview on site, he stipulates that neither a tour nor talk with any Scouting employee will be permitted. "We'll go straight to a cubicle and talk," he says.

Away from headquarters' hushed confines, the discussion about the Scouts' newly affirmed policy is growing louder. And more frequently in recent months, it's accompanied by action.

School boards in California, Minnesota, Massachusetts and New York have severed ties with troops, denying access to school facilities or students on the grounds that the Scouts violate antidiscrimination policies.

Some local governments also have distanced themselves from the Scouts, including the cities of Miami Beach, Fort Lauderdale, Wilton Manor and Broward County, all in Florida.

Citing discrimination, 24 of the United Way's 1,400 chapters nationwide cut or eliminated Boy Scout funding. Before the cuts, the charity gave nearly $84 million to Boy Scouts nationwide. Several corporations also have turned on the group, including Chase Manhattan Bank, Levi-Strauss & Co. and Textron Inc. Wells Fargo severed ties in the early 1990s over the organization's gay policy.

In the Santa Barbara County community of Goleta, where schools halted sponsorship and recruiting access two months ago, the response has been cleanly divided, district Supt. Ida Rickborn says. "Scouting parents obviously are very much in support of the Scouts. Other members of the community are not supportive of continuing the relationship."

Elsewhere, especially where after-school programs are scarce, some parents agonize over what they see as an ethical trade-off.

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