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Jewish World Review Oct. 17, 2000 / 18 Tishrei 5760

John Leo

John Leo
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Consumer Reports

Un-American activity?

The Boy Scouts are entitled to their own moral vision -- NEWS STORIES in the New York Times referred to the Boy Scouts as "almost un-American" and "something akin to a hate group" for refusing to allow homosexuals to become scoutmasters. Both slurs were attributed to vague, unnamed sources.

"Almost un-American"? This must be a large category, since a Newsweek poll found the public supports the Supreme Court's decision backing the Scouts 56 to 36 percent. Also in this nearly un-American class would be several state supreme courts (four out of five said the Scouts are entitled to determine their own membership without government interference) and virtually the entire U.S. House of Representatives, which voted 362 to 12 to sustain the Scouts' federal charter.

"Akin to a hate group"? Only if traditional morality is now officially a form of hate. Boy Scouts are explicitly taught to respect all their fellow citizens. The Scouts issue no anti-gay vitriol and have joined no political alliance to oppose gays. The Scouts' brief to the Supreme Court said simply, "We can respect the plea of many gay and lesbian Americans not to have the majority's morality imposed on them. By the same token, we ask that a contrary morality not be forced upon private associations like the Boy Scouts . . . ."

That is the central issue here. Gays, supported by most of the media and the cultural elite, see this purely as an issue of discrimination and access. But there's another way of looking at it: Can the moral vision of a dominant class be forced on private associations under cover of anti-discrimination laws? Understandably, gays want homosexuality to be normalized. The Scouts do not wish to be conscripted into the normalization process. In effect, the Scouts said to gays, take your case to the American people and persuade them if you can, but do not force us to be part of your effort.

"Little more than prejudice." Elite notions were on full display in last year's 7-to-0 ruling against the Scouts by the New Jersey Supreme Court, the most radical of the state courts. Chief Justice Deborah Poritz dismissed traditional moral objections to homosexuality as "little more than prejudice." But it isn't the job of any justice to deride or dismiss anybody's moral code. And it isn't the job of a judge to psychoanalyze a party to a case and announce that principle isn't involved, merely prejudice and antipathy.

In overruling the New Jersey court, the Supreme Court got it right. The court ruled that antidiscrimination laws can't trump First Amendment rights of free speech and free association. Forcing the Scouts to retain an avowedly homosexual assistant scoutmaster "would significantly burden the organization's right to oppose or disfavor homosexual conduct" and it "would, at the very least, force the organization to send a message, both to the youth members and to the world, that the Boy Scouts accepts homosexual conduct as a legitimate form of behavior." The principle is obvious–expressive associations must not be required to include those who step on the group's message. Gay parades must not be forced to include contingents of gay haters, and racists have no right to membership in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Richard Sincere, a gay activist and libertarian, says that forcing the Scouts to accept gays "threatens all of us who want to set standards for our organization, including gay men and lesbians."

One effect of the Scouts' case is to reveal the controversial side of antidiscrimination laws and regulations. Though written in the bland and unassailable language of brotherhood, they give critics of private groups "a public hammer with which to beat the groups they oppose," said Richard Epstein, professor of law at the University of Chicago. They also provide a way for outsiders to reach into a dissenting group to help determine its membership, policies, and officers. At Tufts University, an evangelical student group, which has theological objections to homosexuality, was punished for declining to allow a bisexual woman into a leadership position.

The Supreme Court's ruling in the Scouts' case is a significant one, clearly setting limits on the coercive use of antidiscrimination laws against private associations. The elite view of the world was overruled here, but it was a 5-to-4 decision and is not a sure bet to last. "The four dissenters are non-persuadables, " said Epstein. "If they get a fifth vote, they would overturn this in the twinkling of a eye." Cases such as this are directly at stake in the very different court nominations George W. Bush and Al Gore would likely make.

Now gay groups are pressuring the United Way, companies, and governments to turn against the Scouts. Trying to persuade donors to withhold money from the Scouts is legitimate. People who disagree can withhold money from the United Way or any other skittish donors and give it to the Scouts. That's the way a free society operates. But the attempt to use state power to punish the Scouts for exercising their constitutional rights is another matter. Government can't single out the Scouts for retaliation. If parks, schools, and streets are open to other groups, they must remain open to the Scouts, too. The country has to weigh the issue without the government's thumb on the scale.

JWR contributor John Leo's latest book is Two Steps Ahead of the Thought Police. Send your comments by clicking here.


10/10/00: A tempest in an ink pot
10/03/00: The Al Gore quiz
09/26/00: The sleeper effect
09/19/00: Baby-saving made easy
09/12/00: Line between reporting and editorializing continues to blur
09/05/00: In the key of F
08/29/00: Hollywood connection
08/22/00: Some friendly advice to the GOP
08/15/00: You can't make this up
08/08/00: The niceness strategy
08/01/00: When rules don't count
07/25/00: Anti-male bias increasingly pervades our culture
07/18/00: Banned in Boston
07/12/00: What Jacoby had to deal with!
07/11/00: Will boys be boys?
07/05/00: Partial-sense decision
06/27/00: Attitude toward death penalty gets in the way of facts
06/20/00: Double troubles
06/13/00: Fools paradise
06/06/00: Accidental conspirator
05/30/00: Faking the hate
05/23/00: Was it law or poetry?
05/16/00: Here, there and everywhere, people have gone bonkers
05/09/00: Tufts evangelicals are punished for acting on their beliefs
05/02/00: Elian's opera isn't over until nearly everyone sings
04/25/00: All the news that fits: The media serve up many stories from a standard script
04/19/00: Those darned readers: The gap between reporters and the general public is huge
04/05/00: Census sense and nonsense
03/29/00: Hollywood message films leave no room for other views
03/22/00: The Vatican confesses, but is it enough?
03/14/00: Watch what you say: The left can no longer be counted on to defend free speech
03/07/00: McCain's malleable messages
03/01/00: Bush's appearance at Bob Jones U. will dog him all the way
02/23/00: 'Multi-millionaire' show is new evidence we're insane

© 2000, John Leo