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Out of the frying pan.

... into the fire. From Steven Spielberg to Bill Clinton, high-profile supporters of the Boy Scouts are feeling the heat from activists angry at the group's antigay policy

The day the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Boy Scouts of America has the legal right to determine its membership criteria, a reporter asked President Clinton whether he would consider resigning from his honorary post as president of the organization to protest its antigay policy. Clinton did not answer the question directly, saying, "I'm generally against discrimination against gays," while praising the Scouts as "a great group." Two weeks later 11 members of Congress wrote Clinton asking him to resign his position immediately, calling the policy "unacceptable."

Clinton is hardly alone in feeling the heat. From corporate chieftains to Hollywood moguls to religious leaders, the high court's decision has put those with a financial or political connection to the Scouts on the spot in deciding between their opposition to antigay discrimination and their loyalty to the organization that serves millions of American youths.

"A lot of people were waiting for the Supreme Court before making a decision," says Evan Wolfson, senior staff attorney for Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, who argued the case before the justices. "Now the Scouts" antigay position has been laid bare, and people can't hide behind the legal ruling anymore. This is a discriminatory organization, and that will have consequences for as long as the policy remains in place."

Since the June 28 Supreme Court 5-4 decision upholding the Scouts' right to bar gay leaders, the Boy Scouts has been under siege. Democratic lawmakers threatened to end the Scouts' honorary congressional charter. "We're saying intolerance is bad, and I don't see any reason why the federal government should be supporting it," said Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.). Meanwhile, the United Way of Southeastern New England said it would cut off funding for the Rhode Island chapter of the Scouts if the chapter did not change its antigay policy. The United Way contributes $200,000 to the state chapter.

Indeed, the Supreme Court decision has intensified the long-simmering culture war over one of American's most beloved--and increasingly embattled--institutions. Now the fight has moved away from the legal arena and toward the Boy Scouts of America itself. But the Irving, Tex.-based organization will not be easy to persuade. The group's hierarchy is so secretive that opponents of the policy are scrambling just to find out where to apply political pressure.

"The operation of the Scouts is a mystery shrouded in a riddle, wrapped in an enigma," says Dave Rice, vice president of Scouting for All, an organization devoted to overturning the policy. "For those of us who want change, it makes it very difficult to find the pressure points. It's also a way for those associated with the Scouts to absolve themselves of moral responsibility for a discriminatory position." (Gregg Shields, the Boy Scouts' spokesman, did not return repeated phone calls from The Advocate.)

Like most nonprofit organizations, the Scouts' decision-making process is vested primarily in its staff. Roy L. Williams, who replaced Jere Ratcliffe as chief executive effective June 1, supports the policy but is considered more pragmatic than his predecessor.

In addition to the staff, the Scouts' byzantine structure includes four other bodies. Like other organizations, the Scouts has a board of directors, whose responsibility includes the group's finances and overall direction. In addition the Scouts also has an honorary board made up of President Clinton and the living former presidents as well as others. An advisory council includes a long roster of individuals who offer counsel to the Scouts but have no direct control over policy or financial matters. Perhaps the most powerful of all the bodies is the relationships committee, which includes liaisons to church groups who sponsor thousands of Scout troops and contribute financially to the organization.

"Essentially, the staff makes decisions, and then the board [of directors] ratifies them," says Chuck Wolfe, a former member of the national executive board. "The board has input, but it's basically about things like `Should we build a new camp in West Virginia?' The real driving force is the relationships committee, where the large sponsoring organizations have their voices heard. That's where the money comes from, and that's where organizations actually sponsor the troops. That committee has not had a progressive voice on it for years."

Given the boards' right-wing political leanings, ending the ban on gay scouts and troop leaders is no simple proposition. The Mormon Church, a formidable gay rights foe, has threatened to withdraw from the Scouts if the ban is rescinded. The Mormons sponsor nearly 13% of all Scout troops. The Southern Baptist Convention and the Catholic Church are also major donors to the organization as well as troop sponsors.

So far the Scouts have yet to face an opponent with the kind of internal clout the Mormon Church has. The national charitable group the United Way of America could change that because of the financial help it provides the Scouts. Yet to date only seven of 1,400 United Way chapters have withdrawn funding from the Scouts because of its antigay policy. The Dallas United Way alone has contributed more than $10 million to the Scouts since 1991. Liberal religious denominations like the United Church of Christ and the Unitarian Universalist Association have lodged formal protests against the policy. But because those groups sponsor far fewer troops, they lack the capacity to effect change. Public schools sponsor about 10% of the troops, but with a few exceptions, they have shown little willingness to challenge the antigay policy.

The United Methodist Church, the largest single sponsor of Scout troops, could put a serious scare into Scout officials. But the church remains deeply divided on the antigay policy. The General Board of Church and Society stated last year that even though it "would like to enthusiastically affirm and encourage this continuing partnership of the church and scouting, we cannot due to the Boy Scouts of America's discrimination against gays." But the Commission on United Methodist Men, which actually sponsors the scouting groups, joined the Mormon Church and other religious bodies in submitting a friend of the court brief to the Supreme Court.

The policy has apparently generated little dissent from within the Scouts. In 1993 Joe Velasquez, an AFL-CIO official who served on the executive board, made a rare personal plea to the relationships committee to end the ban. "We in the labor movement, like the organizations you represent, believe that discrimination, whether it's based on race, religion, gender, ethnic background, class, or sexual orientation, is wrong," he said. "It may now be time for the Boy Scouts of America to go through the same reexamination process and decide if they are living up to their mission of teaching America's children the values that made this country great." The labor group no longer has a representative on the board.

Still, foes of the Scouts' policy have other sympathetic people to whom they can turn. Steven Spielberg, the director of the films Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan, is a member of the Scouts' advisory panel. Spielberg's association with the Scouts dates back to his childhood role as an Eagle Scout, an honor shared with James Dale, the plaintiff in the Supreme Court case. (Spielberg was introduced to photography in the Scouts.) But Spielberg, an ardent liberal, also has a long-standing commitment to gay rights. In a joint gift with David Geffen, his partner at DreamWorks SKG, Spielberg made a $500,000 contribution to youth services at the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center.

Spielberg, who was vacationing in Europe at press time, could not be reached for comment. But his longtime spokesperson, Marvin Levy, says Spielberg is aware of the moral implications of his association with the Scouts. Levy says Spielberg may take up the matter upon his return to the country in August.

"He is going to need a chance to evaluate the policy in light of the Supreme Court decision," says Levy. "He has been outspoken about his opposition to discrimination on the basis of gender and sexual orientation. The Boy Scouts has been very important for his own life and for millions of young boys, so I can't predict what he will do. As far as I know, the only time he pressured the Scouts was in the 1980s when he got them to authorize a merit badge for cinematography in addition to photography."

Rice says Spielberg is one of the few individuals in the country who could move the Scouts. "I don't think there are any easy answers or quick fixes, given the role of the conservative churches," he says. "But if Spielberg were to really take on the Scouts, he could make a dent. At the very least his protest would be highly embarrassing for the Scouts. It's the last thing they need right now."

Board member Edward E. Whitacre Jr. is also in an uncomfortable position. As chairman and chief executive officer of SBC Communications Inc. in San Antonio, he is one of the many corporate heads on the Boy Scouts executive board whose companies ban antigay discrimination. Other companies that have had in the past or currently have executives on the board include Abbott Labs and General Motors. SBC owns Pacific Bell, the San Francisco-based telephone company that is considered one of the most gay-friendly employers in the nation. On its Web site SBC brags that "our commitment to diversity has earned us a national reputation."

Yet SBC's foundation has continued to donate to the Scouts. Whitacre, who declined requests for an interview, resigned as chairman of the Scouts board in May but remains on the board as a member. His spokesman, Selim Bingol, said Whitacre's association with the Scouts is as an "individual, not as a representative of the company. I don't know what his thinking is now that the decision has come out. We haven't talked about it."

After promising to speak to Whitacre about a study of the antigay policy Whitacre is undertaking, Bingol did not return several phone calls. John Britton, a spokesman for Pacific Bell, said that the company "believes in giving back to the community, whether it's the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, or other youth groups. We have worked very closely with the gay community. I don't believe the gay community has a problem with us."

Rice is not so sure. "To me, it's a contradiction to head a nondiscriminatory corporation and then sit on a discriminatory board," he says. "We have to keep hammering away at people who continue to support the Scouts. At some point they have to take a stand, because we are not going away."

Find more on efforts to Change the Boy Scout policy and links to related Internet sites at
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Title Annotation:Boy Scout policy makes political waves
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 29, 2000
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