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Is the Boy Scouts of America public or private?

By Wendy McElroy
web posted August 8, 2005

On July 31, President Bush addressed a Jamboree of more than 30,000 Boy Scouts in Virginia.

He stated, "through the generations, scouts have made America a stronger and better nation."

Those critical of the Boy Scouts of America argue that the Boy Scouts' exclusion of gays, atheists and females makes America more divided and divisive. One side wishes to strengthen the Boy Scouts; the other wishes to destroy the Boy Scouts by forcing politically correct changes upon it.

Over the past two decades, the Boy Scouts has been both a flash point and the ground of sustained struggle between traditional and PC values. The central issue is whether the Boy Scouts is a private or public organization.

If it is a private organization, then the Boy Scouts does not and should not have to justify its membership policies. It enjoys the same freedom of association and conscience as an individual. A private Boy Scouts of America has the same right to exclude gays as The United Negro College Fund has to exclude whites from scholarships.

But whether the Boy Scouts is private is not clear, and the organization must bear some responsibility for the blurring of lines. That responsibility is also an opportunity. The Boy Scouts can strike a blow for the right of free association by altering its policies.

I am not referring to the Boy Scouts' exclusionary membership policies, but to the policy of accepting massive government support, which is the cause of so many blurred lines.

Where is the line clearly drawn?

Public means "of or pertaining to the people; belonging to the people…opposed to private." A public place or organization is typically tax-funded or subsidized, and no one individual has a right to greater access than any other. National parks are an example.

Private means "not available for public use, control, or participation…Belonging to a particular person or persons, as opposed to the public or the government." A private place or organization receives no public funding; people become members through invitation or through policies defined by the owners. Your living room is an example.

Critics of the Boy Scouts, like the American Civil Liberties Union, make one strong argument against the organization's private status. The Boy Scouts enjoys massive and unique tax-funded support from governments both local and federal. On the local level, for example, the city of San Diego was targeted because it allowed the Boy Scouts' headquarters to operate in a city-owned park for $1 per year and to use other city-owned facilities without any rent.

On the federal level, the Pentagon provided an estimated $6 to $8 million from 1997 to 2001 to assist a Boy Scouts Jamboree -- an event which is traditionally held on military bases.

Linda Hills of the ACLU aptly states, "The Boy Scouts can't have it both ways…If they truly are a private religious organization, free to engage in any form of discrimination they choose, then they are not entitled to a government subsidy."

On June 22, U.S. District Judge Blanche Manning (Illinois) agreed. She ruled against continuing the Jamboree's subsidy and, so, refused BSA continued access both to military bases and assistance such as transportation.

On July 26, in a counter-move, the Senate unanimously voted for military bases to continue hosting Boy Scouts events. (The relevant provision was part of S.1042, which will set Defense Department policy for 2006.)

The debate over the Boy Scouts' status is heating up.How hot can it get? Three factors make me believe it will sizzle.

First, high court rulings and the Senate are in direct conflict.

Second, the rhetoric I'm reading has turned openly vicious. Consider the following commentary from a Boy Scouts' critic. Let me set the context. Four scout leaders were killed recently in an electrical accident. A few days later, more than 300 Boy Scouts at the aforementioned Jamboree collapsed from heat prostration while waiting for Bush's earlier scheduled arrival that was delayed.

Then, in a separate incident, lightning killed a leader and a 13-year-old boy during a storm in Sequoia National Park.

In response to these tragic events, The Advocate -- "the Award Winning GLBT [Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgendered] News Site" -- published a somewhat tongue-in-cheek column arguing that such horrible occurrences must mean that "God hates Boy Scouts." The column was a response-in-kind to Jerry Falwell's comments following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, in which he said "the gays and the lesbians…I point the finger in their face and say 'you helped this happen.'"

The Advocate quoted from one report of the event, "Screams rang out as the tent caught fire and the men burned," then added, "That's downright Old Testament."

"While under the law the Boy Scout stance on gays may be justifiable, socially, morally, it's just plain wrong," The Advocate said.

Public outrage forced Falwell to publicly apologize. I don't believe The Advocate will apologize for its insensitive response to the lightning deaths.

The third reason for increasing divisiveness was offered by WorldNetDaily on July 30.

"If you ever felt like you were sick of seeing the Boy Scouts of America being used for a punching bag by the American Civil Liberties Union and other activists, take heart. Reinforcements are here."

WND was referring to Hans Zeiger, whose new book Get Off My Honor is described as a counter-offensive in the Boy Scout "war."

Each side is preparing for a no-prisoners-taken showdown.

That doesn't need to happen.

The first step in avoiding yet another senseless culture "war" is to clearly establish the Boy Scouts as a public or private organization.

The solution is simple. The Boy Scouts should cease to accept tax-funding and cut all official ties to government agencies. The Boy Scouts should live up to its self-declared status as a private organization. This would also be living up to the Boy Scouts' principles: it is the honest and honorable thing to do.

Wendy McElroy is the editor of ifeminists.com and a research fellow for The Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif. She is the author and editor of many books and articles, including the new book, "Liberty for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century" (Ivan R. Dee/Independent Institute, 2002). She lives with her husband in Canada.

 

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