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Group Comes to Defense of Boy Scouts

Fund drive is set up after United Way chapter ends support over organization's gay ban.

December 04, 2002|Massie Ritsch | Times Staff Writer

A group of Ventura County politicians, community leaders and executives has launched a fund-raising drive to protest United Way's decision to stop supporting the Boy Scouts because of their policy against homosexuals.

Now in its third week, the independent campaign has raised more than $30,000, which its organizers will match dollar for dollar, leader Carlos Ortega said.

That already surpasses what the Boy Scouts' Ventura County Council stands to lose when the county's United Way chapter cuts off its funding next summer. The Friends of Ventura County Scouts have committed $100,000 to match donations to the local council.

"Wherever your community happens to be, the Scouts are there," said Ortega, explaining why he and more than 80 others launched the Friends group to honor the Boy Scouts and protest United Way's "unwarranted and unfair" action.

"At some point you have to stand up for the people who've been doing the grunt work in society and say, 'You know what, these are good guys,' " Ortega said.

His group's prominent backers include several Ventura County politicians, all Republicans: Rep. Elton Gallegly, Assembly members Tony Strickland and Keith Richman, Sheriff Bob Brooks and Dist. Atty. Greg Totten. Christian broadcasting mogul Edward Atsinger and singer Pat Boone also support the "Tribute to Scouts."

United Way of Ventura County decided in 2001 to broaden its antidiscrimination policy, denying funding to any organization that discriminates based on sexual preference. The action followed a Supreme Court decision in 2000 that upheld the Boy Scouts of America's policy, excluding openly gay men and boys from their ranks.

Although the court's decision directly affected only New Jersey, where a gay troop leader first brought a lawsuit, the case rippled throughout the United States.

Some schools and cities barred Scout troops from meeting in their buildings. Many churches and synagogues also debated their sponsorships. Some donors pulled their money from the Boy Scouts, while others contributed in support of the organization's right to pick its members. Director Steven Spielberg, an Eagle Scout, resigned from the organization's national advisory board.

Each of United Way's 1,400 chapters operates autonomously, and Ventura County's chapter is among roughly 55 that have taken formal stances against groups that discriminate on race, religion, sexual preference and other criteria, according to the national organization.

In Los Angeles County, United Way stopped supporting local Boy Scout troops in recent years but funds "Learning for Life," an in-school ethics program that is affiliated with Scouting but does not exclude gay leaders, a United Way spokeswoman said Tuesday.

United Way and Boy Scouts officials in Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties said local troops will not lose United Way funding.

Ventura County's United Way "is dealing with donor dollars and we have a fiduciary responsibility to our donors to make sure that our agencies do not discriminate for any reason," board Chairman Samuel L. Vernallis said.

United Way offered to fund Ventura County's "Learning for Life" program, but the Scouting council declined the offer.

Vernallis said he would donate to the Friends of Ventura County Scouts himself if they had not exploited United Way's stance in recent newspaper ads to stoke their donations. He fears the campaign will hinder United Way's fund-raising.

"If they are successful in hurting the United Way campaign, all they're doing is hurting individual clients of our agencies," Vernallis said.

One of United Way's largest individual contributors in the county, health insurance executive Denny Weinberg, has withdrawn his support and is giving instead to the Boy Scouts. "I don't want to see United Way stray from its mission and try to set policy for other agencies," Weinberg said.

In the current funding cycle, which ends June 30, the Boy Scouts' Ventura County council will continue to receive money from United Way in two ways: $28,716 from the county chapter's Community Care Fund, which distributes donors' contributions to more than 50 agencies; and $21,698 from donors who name the Boy Scouts as the sole recipient of their gift. After June, United Way will no longer fund Boy Scouts through its community fund.

"We're disappointed with [United Way's policy], but we respect their right as a private organization to establish their values and live by their values just as we expect the right to establish our values and live by our values," said Dave Graska, the Scouting council's executive director.

Losing that money removes only 2% of the Scouts' $1.5-million annual budget, a shortfall the organization could make up without the independent fund-raising campaign, Graska said.

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Times staff writers Eric Malnic and Stanley Allison contributed to this story.

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