Nation's Largest Jewish Organization Disappointed by Supreme Court Sanction of Boy Scout's Discrimination
Pelavin: "The danger posed by today's decision is that every effort to halt discrimination may be checkmated by an assertion of associational autonomy."
Contact: Raanan Weintraub, (202) 387-2800
WASHINGTON June 28, 2000 — Reacting to today's United States Supreme Court decision in the case of Dale v. The Boy Scouts of America, in which the Court ruled that the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) will be allowed to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, Mark J. Pelavin, Associate Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism said, "The BSA does its members and its famous Be Prepared' motto a disservice by discriminating: excluding individuals solely on the basis of sexual orientation sets an example that does nothing to prepare Scouts for our diverse world."
Today the noble American ideal of civil rights for all suffered a great blow. Despite the best aspirations of the majority of Americans, the United States Supreme Court has today permitted a leading public organization to continue judging people on the basis of such extraneous factors as race, religion, national origin, disability, and, especially, sexual orientation. The Supreme Court has decided that the Boy Scouts of America may maintain its discriminatory policy against homosexuals who wish to participate in scouting activities. The Court's reasoning that the BSA is not a public association fails the common sense test: when an association reaches a size and influence that government turns to as a partner for public schools, that entity can no longer reasonably claim to be a totally private association.
The BSA, however, wants to claim the benefits of being both public and private, without accepting any concomitant responsibilities. This case involved James Dale, an assistant scoutmaster removed from the Boy Scouts nine years ago when organizational leaders discovered that he is gay. Mr. Dale sued for reinstatement. The New Jersey State Supreme Court unanimously held that the Boy Scouts of America constituted a "place of public accommodation," and that it was therefore not permitted to discriminate against Dale. That ruling conflicted with an unrelated March 1998 decision in the Boy Scout's favor by the California Supreme Court, which held that the organization was not a business and was, therefore, free to exclude gays.
The Court's decision that the BSA is exempt is all the more disappointing when we consider that the Boy Scouts' mission is to promote model citizenship and integrity. The Boy Scouts of America could be a powerful symbol of all that America is and what it aspires to be. Membership in the scouting program numbers almost 1.5 million individuals. The Boy Scouts tell the public that any boy is welcome to join. The BSA clearly falls short of that standard in practice. The BSA does its members and its famous "Be Prepared" motto a disservice by discriminating: excluding individuals solely on the basis of sexual orientation, sets an example that does nothing to prepare Scouts for our diverse world. As the New Jersey Supreme Court unanimously recognized, the exclusionary anti-gay membership policy that the Boy Scouts now so vigorously defends falls outside the scope of any association or expressive freedom protected by the First Amendment. The danger posed by today's decision is that every effort to halt discrimination may be checkmated by an assertion of associational autonomy.
We in the Reform Jewish Movement are not blind to the attributes of Scouting. Indeed, many of our congregations sponsor or are affiliated with local Boy Scout Troops. Still, the BSA's discriminatory policies are in conflict with our most fundamental values. The Jewish principle of upholding human rights and the dignity of human beings has its source in the idea that all human beings are created b'tselem elohim — In the image of God. If the divine is found in the souls of all Gods children — gay, lesbian, and straight — then surely any discrimination on this basis is repugnant to this central tenet shared by so many faiths. Our sympathy and support today are extended to those who continue the struggle to fight prejudice based on superficialities.
The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism is the Washington office of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, representing its 895 congregations across North America, whose membership includes 1.5 million Reform Jews, and the 1700 rabbis of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.