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A year of loosening the knot with the Boy Scouts

WASHINGTON, July 1 (JTA) — It’s been a year since the Supreme Court ruled that the Boy Scouts of America could exclude a gay scoutmaster because of his sexual orientation.

For many Jewish groups that work with the Boy Scouts — mainly Reform temples and Jewish community centers — the ensuing year has been marked by soul-searching, as they grappled with whether they should end their ties to the organization because of the organization’s stance on gays.

“Most people are torn,” said Alan Mann, senior vice president for JCC and Community Services at the Jewish Community Centers Association of North America.

Within the Jewish community, Orthodox groups supported the ruling, saying civic organizations should be empowered to determine their own message — but most Jewish organizations condemned it as endorsing discrimination.

“We are stunned that in the year 2000 the Supreme Court could issue such a decision,” the Anti-Defamation League’s national director, Abraham Foxman, and its national chairman, Howard Berkowitz, said in a statement at the time.

“This decision effectively states that as long as an organization avows an anti-homosexual position, it is free to discriminate against gay and lesbian Americans.”

In January, the Reform movement reacted against the high court ruling, issuing an advisory to those congregations that sponsor Boy Scout troops to sever their relations with the national scouting movement.

“It was a very difficult, wrenching decision,” said Rabbi Daniel Polish, the director of the Joint Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism.

Parents whose children were not in Jewish-affiliated troops were urged to take their sons out of scouting as well.

There are approximately 280 Jewish scouting units, and about 30 Reform congregations and 25 JCCs are scouting charter members.

The momentum was slow but several congregations eventually suspended their connection with their troops and three JCCs have given up their charters.

Many sponsors, however, worked out arrangements to keep their troops.

“In most cases, the relationships are being maintained,” said Rabbi Art Vernon, the vice chairman of the National Jewish Committee on Scouting, a subcommittee of the Boy Scouts.

For those congregations who were not able or willing to withdraw from the Boy Scouts, the commission recommended they amend their local charters to include an anti-discrimination clause, withdraw financial support from the scouts and encourage participation in other groups.

Temple Israel in St. Louis recently followed one of those recommendations.

It adopted a resolution that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in troops sponsored by the synagogue, but agreed to continue its sponsorship of Troop 54.

Rabbi Micah Greenstein of Temple Israel in Memphis, Tenn., wrote to his members in a synagogue bulletin to explain the congregation’s position to keep its ties with its troop.

The synagogue board passed an anti-discrimination resolution and urged the Boy Scouts to re-evaluate its policy.

In addition, the temple’s troop established a task force to develop a program to teach inclusion and nondiscrimination and pledged to work within the Boy Scouts to change the national organization’s policy.

That change doesn’t appear to be likely.

On their Web site, Boy Scout officials say they make no effort to discover the sexual orientation of any person. “Scouting’s message is, however, compromised when prospective leaders of youth present themselves as role models inconsistent with BSA standards,” the site says.

“We believe an avowed homosexual is not a role model for the traditional moral values espoused in the Scout Oath and Law and homosexual conduct is inconsistent with the values we wish to instill.”

As part of the scout oath participants pledge to be “morally straight.”

Jewish groups weren’t the only ones to react negatively to last June’s high court ruling, said the JCCA’s Mann.

Dozens of local United Way offices as well as corporations reportedly have stopped funding their Scout troops.

Conservative groups defend the organization’s right to exercise its freedom of association in setting its own membership and leadership standards. They warn that had the high court ruled differently religious groups might be put at risk to be forced to accept people of other faiths into their organizations.

Some groups argue that the Boy Scouts is a public organization and so cannot discriminate in its hiring or membership practices.

An appeals court had found the Boy Scouts to be a place of public accommodation because it has broad-based membership solicitation and it has partnered with various public entities and public service organizations. About 60 percent of troops partner with churches.

Civil rights groups say the case opened the door for other groups who now might say they, too, deserve exemptions from anti-discrimination laws.

Some schools have tried to block Boy Scout meetings because of the organization’s policy of discrimination against gays, but by law the Boy Scouts have the same right to meet in public schools as all other organizations.

The American Medical Association adopted a resolution stating that youth groups should lift bans on membership for gay youth because these bans contribute to anxiety and depression among gay youth and are bad public health policy.

Meanwhile, public debate over the Scouts continues even on the congressional level.

An amendment to the federal education bill calls for denying federal funds to schools or districts that discriminate in some way against the Boy Scouts of America.

That bill is wending its way through Congress.

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