The week of May 14, Sen. Jesse Helms (R-NC) introduced an ammendment to the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Act that would cut off federal funding to schools that deny equal access from the Boy Scouts or other groups that "prohibit the acceptance of homosexuals." The amendment is unnecessary and unwarranted, and oversteps local school districts their right to set their own policies. It also provides unique rights to the Boy Scouts, a group that already enjoys considerable special privileges in public schools, and overlooks the fact that even as schools stop sponsoring Scouts troops, the group may still meet on school grounds. Read below for more background on GLSEN's campaign, and take the action to the right to urge your senator to oppose the measure.
From Spring 2001 Respect article by Kate Frankfurt
The right to exclude gay youth and adult volunteers was so important to the leaders of the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) that when the New Jersey Supreme Court handed down a unanimous decision against the Scouts in Boy Scouts of America v. Dale, they took it all the way to the United States Supreme Court to have it overturned. On June 28, 2000, that court handed the BSA the decision it had been looking for: the right, as a private organization, to continue a policy of exclusion against gay youth who wanted to be members and gay adults who wanted to volunteer their time.
The ruling came as a profound disappointment for the LGBT community and its allies, who, recognizing the role the Scouts play in American cultural life, understood the symbolic and real-life implications of the ruling.
For LGBT youth advocates, the ruling served as a call to action. And in the months following the Supreme Court’s decision, youth advocates from around the country spoke up by writing letters to their local papers, challenging local troops to reject the national organization’s exclusionary policies, and lobbying schools to sever ties with the group. According to National Field Director John Spear, excitement for a grassroots response to the ruling was obvious. "We were getting hundreds of calls and emails asking about the issue," he said. "The common question we heard was: if our public schools are duty bound to serve all students equally, how are they able to support and operate programs that discriminate against some?"
This question prompted GLSEN to dig deeper into the internal structure of the Scouts, particularly the relationship troops have with schools. Spear says that what they found surprised them.
In its 1991 annual report, the Boy Scouts of America revealed that each troop was "locally owned and operated by its [sponsoring] organization."
"We learned that the Texas-based Boy Scouts of America corporation doesn’t sponsor or run a single Scout troop,” stated Spear. “Instead, its signature scouting program is franchised to tens of thousands of local community groups, which must run the program in accordance with the national BSA’s policies."
GLSEN also found a 1999 BSA publication that stated that public schools ranked third among all chartering organizations in the nation. This means that over 10,000 public schools use taxpayer money to run programs that are rejecting certain students based on sexual orientation.
Spear says the fact that LGBT youth are excluded from these important school-sponsored activities is only one half of the problem. "We’re also concerned about the harmful message that school sponsorship sends. What does it mean for students to see their school sponsor a program that essentially says, ‘you’re not good enough to participate?’ This is an incredibly damaging message."
It’s a message that has prompted many school districts to reconsider their relationship to the BSA. As Respect went to print, three of the ten largest school districts in the nation (New York City, Chicago and Broward County, FL) have ended their sponsorship of BSA troops. (See map). Several smaller districts and individual schools have also sent the message that they will not sponsor troops until the national organization rescinds its exclusionary policies.
"Slowly but surely, we’re seeing schools wake up to the reality that they cannot support programs that deny equal access to certain young people," stated Spear.
In order to support activists interested in or already working on the issue, GLSEN partnered with Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, which represented James Dale in his suit against the BSA, to identify action items and message points, which would ultimately become the foundation of GLSEN’s national grassroots campaign.
According to MK Cullen, GLSEN’s Washington DC-based Director of Public Policy, the campaign calls on public school districts to end any sponsorship of the Boy Scouts. GLSEN is also keeping a close watch on the special privileges or "sweetheart deals" that are often granted to BSA troops on an exclusive basis. For example, whereas a local Rotary club would have to pay to use school facilities for a weekend meeting, such fees would be waived for a community Scout troop. Other perks may include privileged use of the school’s public address system and the ability to recruit members on school grounds while other groups cannot.
"The Boy Scouts, an organization that fought long and hard for its right to discriminate, benefits from special rights and access in America’s public schools," stated Cullen. "Not only are public schools running the troops, teachers are taking time away from an English lesson to hand out Boy Scout recruitment fliers."
GLSEN formally announced its campaign in October, at its fourth annual national conference, "Teaching Respect for All." Cullen says the campaign provides LGBT rights advocates and their allies a variety of ways in which to get involved. Options include writing letters to local newspapers, organizing for school board meetings, and meeting with local troop leaders to educate them about the harmful effects of the exclusionary practices.
"Through this campaign, people are given a choice about how to be involved," said Cullen. "They can pick a tactic that shows their power or one that focuses more on education and raising awareness. The important thing to remember is that every action, small or large, makes a difference."
In the last few months, several districts have responded, taking important steps to address Scout discrimination in schools. On December 1, New York City Schools Chancellor Harold O. Levy enacted a policy that barred the Scouts from bidding on contracts with city schools and forbade schools from sponsoring troops or allowing Scouts to recruit members during school hours. His statement to The New York Times was simple: "The Board has a policy against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and my job is to enforce the Board’s policy."
In Minneapolis, Carol Johnson faced a similar decision. As a mother, she knew that her three children had benefited from scouting; as an educator, she had supported the Scouts through their use of the public schools. But as the superintendent of the Minneapolis Public School district, which serves 49,000 students, she saw a problem. So she announced, at GLSEN’s National Conference that her district would stop sponsoring BSA troops until the anti-gay policies changed. In a subsequent interview with Education Week, she said that her school district is "an inclusive organization. It would be very difficult to continue to partner with [the Boy Scouts of America] and be consistent with our nondiscrimination policy."
These victories are reflected in the growing list of schools rejecting the Scout’s anti-gay policy, as well as the growing list of others rejecting the policy and withdrawing support, including corporate and charitable funders, United Ways, cities, and religious groups. Although there are bumps along the way, the movement to disassociate from the Scouts’ policy is ever expanding.
"This is a fight we’ll be fighting for years to come," stated Cullen. "We need to be persistent and remember that, at the end of the day, this is about young people and their right to participate fully in public school life. The Boy Scouts will continue to discriminate in schools until our schools say ‘no more.’ We’re going to help that day come around a little sooner."
Frankfurt is a freelance writer living in upstate New York.