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August 3, 2000

Not Just 'Morally Straight'

By

Was the Supreme Court's June 28 decision upholding the right of the Boy Scouts to exclude gay scoutmasters a triumph for bigotry? Many critics are saying as much. Ruth Harlow of the Lambda Legal Defense Fund calls it a "hollow, Pyrrhic victory." Eagle Scout Kevin Peter of Philadelphia told the media it "creates a hostile environment for gay men." Placards reading "Stop Teaching Hate" have popped up at protests in Baltimore and other cities.

They may mean well, but these folks are as wrong as they are impassioned. You don't have to be an Eagle Scout (as I happen to be) to realize that this ruling is ultimately good for all groups, gay ones included.

The reason is rooted, I believe, in our basic right to free association - which necessarily includes a right not to associate. The fact is: Private organizations of all kinds exclude people for a variety of reasons. The Girl Scouts won't accept boys, and the Boy Scouts won't accept girls. The NAACP will turn away white supremacists, and big-city orchestras don't want to hire performers who are more at ease with rock than Bach. Such standards allow groups to project a clear message about who they are and what they stand for, even if we disagree with them.

A corollary of this is what might be called the right to be wrong. I can't tell the Lambda Legal Foundation (who defended James Dale, the plaintiff in the Supreme Court case) to defend heterosexual men and women, and Lambda shouldn't be able to tell the Scouts to abandon their belief that homosexuality is incompatible with being "morally straight."

This point appears lost on Evan Wolfson, Dale's chief legal counsel, to judge from a conversation I had with him recently. Once he learned that I supported the Court's decision, Mr. Wolfson asked me if I was ever taught by the Boy Scouts that homosexuality was wrong. Was there a Scout law against it? No, I told him, not directly, but it's part of the injunction to remain "morally straight." His reply: "Well, who's to judge what that means?"

Quite frankly, we are, and if Messrs. Dale and Wolfson don't like that, that's their problem, not the Scouts'. In the opinion of the Boy Scouts, homosexuality is wrong. Those who disagree are free to whine and complain all they want - and even form their own alternative organization - but it doesn't give them the right to try and use the government to force a private organization to alter its code of ethics.

It's not as if membership in the Boy Scouts is compulsory for all males. Those who don't like the way the Scouts operate don't have to join. The same is true with religion - you either believe or you don't. If you believe, you are expected to abide by the rules of your chosen faith.

George A. Davidson, chief legal counsel for the Boy Scouts, both in New Jersey and before the U.S. Supreme Court, is someone who understands the right to be wrong. Davidson told me that the freedom of association, properly understood, is what caused the Boy Scouts to win cases in California, Kansas, Connecticut and Oregon. According to Davidson, the Supreme Court reversed New Jersey's decision against the Scouts because Wolfson couldn't prove this would be a "lock box case" - meaning that a victory for Dale would set a precedent for every excluded person to sue an organization that had denied him or her membership.

Their disagreement with the Scouts over homosexuality has led many of its critics to neglect the importance of this right to be wrong. They fall back instead on the acceptance of homosexuality in modern culture, and make dire predictions for the Scouts. "Dinosaurs became extinct because they didn't evolve," Dale said after the ruling. "The Boy Scouts are making themselves extinct, and it's a very sad thing." But as Chief Justice William Rehnquist noted, this is hardly an argument for denying First Amendment protection to those who refuse to accept homosexuality as just another lifestyle choice.

Like other Scouts, I have no interest in forcing gay groups to accept heterosexuals in leadership positions. Is it too much to ask them to extend us the same courtesy?

Stuart Jones Jr., was the 2000 Kevin Kline intern at the Heritage Foundation, (www.heritage.org), , is a senior majoring in political science at the University of Arkansas in Monticello.

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