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Charity Reopens Its Door to Scouts

United Way of Ventura County reverses its policy against giving money to the Boy Scouts because of that group's refusal to allow gays.

September 25, 2004|Gregory W. Griggs | Times Staff Writer

Under fire for refusing to support the Boy Scouts because of its policy against homosexuals, United Way of Ventura County has changed its guidelines to allow the youth organization to once again apply for funding from the charity.

But United Way officials said their decision this week to reverse their bias policy had nothing to do with the storm of criticism or pending legal battle that resulted from their earlier stance. They said the change was part of a general review of the organization's operating procedures and came after recent updates of United Way's bylaws and code of ethics.

"The decision by the board of directors is based on a review of policy that has been taking place for six months and is not directly related to the lawsuit," said David M. Smith, president and chief executive of the local United Way.

The local United Way chapter was one of several dozen that since 2000 had taken formal positions against groups that discriminate on race, religion, sexual preference and other criteria.

Each of United Way's 1,400 chapters operates autonomously. But the local organization came under attack from politicians, community leaders and executives, who launched their own fundraising drive to support the Boy Scouts and sued the charitable group over its policies.

Two major contributors to the United Way of Ventura County allege in a pending lawsuit that the fundraising organization committed fraud and breach of oral contract by giving charities less than 85% of the millions of dollars it collected in 2001, and taking longer than the promised three months to distribute the money.

Dennis Mark Weinberg, an executive vice president at WellPoint Health Networks, and his wife, Allyson Weinberg, also contend in the civil suit, filed two years after the policy change, that the former president of United Way reneged on an agreement to give to the Boy Scouts.

Weinberg, a former United Way board member, and his wife gave about $100,000 to the umbrella charity in 2002 but broke with United Way that summer when they learned of its decision to stop funding groups that ban gays.

An inclusiveness policy adopted in June 2001 said United Way of Ventura County was committed to funding agencies that provide services, employment and volunteer opportunities to all without discriminating based on age, gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, ethnicity, national origin or disability.

The local nondiscrimination policy was revised Thursday and now states that United Way will only fund nonprofit groups that accept employees or volunteers "without unlawfully discriminating on the basis of any characteristic protected by state or federal law." The U.S. Supreme Court in 2000 upheld the Boy Scouts of America's policy of excluding openly gay men and boys from their ranks.

Smith said the revision opened the door again to the Boy Scouts if they were in compliance with current legislation.

"The Boy Scouts are no longer a member agency, but could apply in the future and may very well receive funding for the program they are seeking support for," he said.

Sean Michael, executive director of Ventura County Rainbow Alliance, an advocacy group for local gays and lesbians, said the revised policy language wouldn't make much difference in the Boy Scouts' chance of receiving donations through United Way.

"They can apply, but whether or not they receive funding is contingent on whether they comply with all laws," Michael said. "United Way policy ... still includes nondiscrimination based on sexual orientation, which is in the California law. I don't see it as a backsliding or loss."

United Way had earlier offered to fund the Boy Scouts' "Learning for Life" career development program, which does not bar girls or gays, but the Boy Scouts of America-Ventura County Council rejected the offer.

Weinberg said both sides have been in settlement discussions this week on the lawsuit. Lawyer Glenn J. Dickinson, who represents United Way, said the parties have agreed not to discuss the dispute until the next court hearing.

Tim Thomton, executive of the Boy Scouts' Ventura County Council, said losing its annual $50,000 allocation from United Way in July 2003 was only a minor hardship. With an annual budget of $1.7 million, "it did not affect the way we offer programs," he said.

The Scouts' board of directors must decide whether the council will apply for future United Way funding, Thomton said, adding that the council "applauds the recent decision of the United Way of Ventura County to approve a policy that includes all law-abiding, nonprofit agencies and provides them with the opportunity to pursue funding."

The Scouts' funding loss was filled by an informal network of local leaders who raised more than $320,000 for the council in the past 22 months.

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