Law: Can A Scout Be Gay? The Boy Scouts' battle to stay straight goes to the Supreme Court


It's one thing to say, as most Americans have for years now,

that people shouldn't be fired from their jobs just because they

are gay. But what if that job is to take care of your son on a

Boy Scouts' camping trip? He may need comforting after a

nightmare, or a pat on the back when he skins his knee. You may

know rationally that gays are no more likely to molest children

than are heterosexuals. And you may know that virtually all

psychiatrists have agreed for years that kids can't be "turned"

gay. But your gut may say something else, something biased.

Although an uneasy consensus is forming in favor of gay

equality, the toughest test is what that equality will mean for

our kids. This week the U.S. Supreme Court will take that test

when it hears oral arguments in the case of Boy Scouts of

America v. James Dale. The ruling, expected by summer, should

settle the question of whether the Boy Scouts have to admit

openly gay men and boys.

The Scouts have fought gays several times before, going back to

the '70s, and always won. But this is the first such case to

reach the high court, and it comes after a unanimous lower-court

ruling against the Scouts. If the gay activists pushing Dale's

case win, they will have cracked one of America's most

traditional fraternities, a group that receives strong support

from conservatives. If the Scouts win, they will help activists

on the right reinforce a crumbling heteros-only wall around key

social institutions (marriage being the most fraught).

The case will also help decide how much legislators can advance

gay equality. Eleven states have laws barring employers from

firing workers for being gay, and at least eight more have

considered such legislation this year. The Boy Scouts contend

that hiring openly gay leaders would interfere with the Scouts'

First Amendment right to express the view that homosexuality is

wrong and would violate their First Amendment freedom to

associate, or not, with whomever they please. They also warn

that if they lose, all organizations that serve a specific

group--they point to the N.A.A.C.P--would have to become


Gay-activist attorneys say the presence of a few gays wouldn't

keep Scout officials from maintaining anti-gay views, since the

vast majority of scouting activities never involve discussions

of sexuality or politics. They say the issue isn't so much a

group's right to exclusivity--no one is arguing that the Ku Klux

Klan must admit Jews--as it is whether a group like the Boy

Scouts, which generally welcomes every boy, can claim that being

anti-gay is part of its core values. (As a practical matter, the

N.A.A.C.P isn't worried: it has filed a brief against the


But even if most scouts and their parents don't discuss

homosexuality, some care deeply about it. Opponents of gay

equality--not just Scout officials but also Fundamentalist

Christian landlords who don't want gays to move in, and

conservative charitable groups that don't want to serve

gays--are increasingly using the First Amendment as a shield. At

the heart of these conflicts is this question: If all Americans

must eventually associate with gay people, even in a close-knit

setting like a Scout troop, how will some continue to express

their contrary moral views about gays?

James Dale, 29, walks into Florent, a hip French eatery near a

predominantly gay neighborhood in Manhattan. "Hi, Jaaaaames,"

coos Bruce, the maitre d', as he leans over in his black leather

pants to kiss Dale, who has become something of a gay celebrity

because of his case. Later, as Dale slices into his medium-rare

tuna steak and sips a glass of Chardonnay, he seems a world away

from S'mores over a campfire.

But Dale used to love all that stuff back in Middletown, N.J.,

where he grew up and, at age 8, entered Pack 142 of the Cub

Scouts. Then known as James Dick--he understandably had the name

changed--he became a model scout, earning 30 merit badges as

well as the coveted eagle scout rank. He was on a first-name

basis with the older men who ran scouting locally, and he gladly

gave speeches to civic groups extolling pinewood derbies and

asking for donations. According to the rules, scouts stop being

scouts at 18, but Dale quickly became an assistant scoutmaster.

Then he went to college at Rutgers, and it changed him. Dale,

who had attended a military high school and voted for George

Bush three months after his 18th birthday, got involved with

left-wing campus groups, according to acquaintances. He became a

vegetarian and wore combat boots. After he came out of the

closet during his sophomore year, he was elected co-president of

the campus gay group.

The men from the Monmouth County Boy Scout Council might never

have known, since Dale didn't have much contact with them from

college. But on July 8, 1990, the Newark daily newspaper ran an

earnest article about the plight of "homosexual teenagers," of

whom Dale was still one. He had spoken at a conference on why

gay teens commit suicide at high rates, and his picture

appeared, showing him gesticulating next to a lesbian fellow


Yikes! thought the Scout councilmen, who revoked his Scout

membership. When Dale asked for an explanation, they said the

Boy Scouts of America "specifically forbid membership to

homosexuals." Angry and sad--Dale had hoped to be a scoutmaster

after college--he brought his case to the main gay legal

organization, the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, which

sued. Then in 1991 Dale gained solid legal footing when the New

Jersey legislature, in an unrelated move, added gays to the

state's Law Against Discrimination.

Today the crux of the Scouts' case against Dale is that he is a

"gay-rights activist" who won't be able to "communicate

scouting's moral values." In fact, it's difficult to imagine

Dale sleeping in a tent at all these days, much less inveighing

against gays around a campfire. Last summer, before his lawyers

made him stop talking to reporters on the record, Dale joked

with one that he was happy not to have to wear the uniform, "a

cotton-poly blend." He lives in lower Manhattan and works as ad

director of POZ, a magazine about AIDS. He has dabbled in

modeling and appeared in January 1999 among the "OUT 100," a

list of influential people compiled by a gay magazine.

But if it is hard to imagine Dale's spreading the word that gay

is bad, his attorney, Evan Wolfson, says the Boy Scouts rarely

convey that message themselves. He says the Scouts have never

taken a position on homosexuality outside a court case. "The

anti-gay view is never communicated to any member," Wolfson

says. "The freedom of association turns on what brings members

together. And scouting is not about bigotry." (Interestingly,

the Girl Scouts have an antidiscrimination policy that is

understood to forbid bias against lesbians--though Girl Scout

leaders aren't supposed to display their sexuality in any way.)

Boy Scouts attorney George Davidson protests that their anti-gay

position is "hardly under a rock," but he admits that if you

check out SCOUTING.ORG, read the Boy Scout Handbook or go with

your son to a troop meeting, you'll hear nothing about gays. He

also acknowledges that, perversely, if they were more stridently

anti-gay--if they were the Boy Scouts of the K.K.K.--they would

have a clearer First Amendment claim that admitting gays would

destroy everything they stand for. "Look, if this were a

business, the Boy Scouts would simply put a few lines [of

anti-gay rhetoric] in a corporate handbook and be done with it,"

says Davidson, who usually defends major businesses.

So why not? Because the Boy Scouts are torn between competing

sides in the culture wars. One faction is composed of such

sponsoring institutions as schools and fire departments--more

and more of which have policies that prohibit discrimination

against gays. Also part of this faction are liberal religious

groups that have filed a brief on behalf of Dale, including

committees from the United Methodist Church, the Unitarian

Universalist Association and the Religious Action Center of

Reform Judaism. Together members of this faction sponsor some

22,000 Scout units (roughly 20% of the total). If the Scouts

became a fiercely anti-gay group, many churches and schools

would quickly drop them. That's why the Scout oath is so mushy,

requiring its takers to be "morally straight," a term devised a

century ago, before the word "straight" had a sexual

implication. Today, however, it is the term to which scouting

officials must point when asked for a statement of their views

on gays.

For some, the Scouts have already gone too far in being

anti-gay. The city of Chicago has battled the Scouts for more

than four years. Its Commission on Human Relations ruled in 1996

that the Scouts broke a city ordinance when they barred former

eagle scout Keith Richardson from applying for a job because he

is gay. The next year the American Civil Liberties Union of

Illinois sued Chicago itself for sponsoring 28 troops of

Explorers, a career-oriented Boy Scouts program for older youth.

It was the first time a chartering institution, rather than the

Scouts, had been sued. In 1998, the city relented and withdrew

its sponsorship.

But the Boy Scouts of America headquarters in Irving, Texas, is

controlled by another faction in the debate, those for whom

"morally straight" definitely means sexually straight. In recent

years, members of the Mormon church have become a powerful force

within scouting. Today nearly 10% of the members of the Boy

Scouts Advisory Council live in Salt Lake City, Utah, home of

the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Latter-day

Saints constitute less than 2% of the U.S. population but 21% of

the boys in the core Boy Scouts program, more than any other


The Latter-day Saints have been instrumental in helping defeat

pro-gay initiatives in at least three states. In 1995 Jack

Goaslind Jr., a prominent church member who currently sits on

the Scouts advisory council, said the church "would withdraw our

charter membership" if scouting were required to admit gays.

Moreover, in the Dale case, most major conservative groups in

the U.S., from the Family Research Council to the Union of

Orthodox Jewish Congregations, have sided with the Scouts.

But the most wrenching internal controversies for the Scouts

have involved gay boys, not gay leaders. Local scoutmasters

routinely allow boys who come out to remain in scouting, though

if headquarters finds out, locals risk losing their charter. In

August a 16-year-old eagle scout applied for a job at Camp

Yawgoog, a Boy Scout retreat 30 minutes west of Providence, R.I.

Camp director Gary Savignano, reeling from a recent pedophilia

scandal, asked the boy if he was gay. When the boy said yes,

Savignano told him he couldn't have the job.

A sit-in ensued, and someone eventually pointed out that Rhode

Island has a law against anti-gay discrimination. The local

Scout council issued a statement offering the kid the job. But

when the men at Scout headquarters heard about the controversy,

they had spokesman Gregg Shields confirm that the boy can't be a

scout if he is gay. The local council quickly backtracked,

reaching an uneasy compromise with headquarters: the boy kept

the job--and his scouting membership--but he had to agree not to

talk about being gay. Since then, the United Way and other

funders have been under pressure to stop donating to the Scouts.

Most such skirmishes are on hold as everyone waits for the

Supreme Court. In the meantime, the Boy Scouts try to remain an

organization where no one talks about homosexuality in an age

when everyone talks about it.

--With reporting by Leslie Everton Brice/Atlanta, Wendy

Cole/Chicago and William Dowell/Camp Yawgoog



The Scouts' Worst P.R. Problem

In some ways Steven Cozza is a typical 15-year-old. He fidgets,

likes to wrestle and play soccer, and nearly dies when Mom brags

that he was voted freshman "King of Hearts." But Cozza is

unusual in the way he left the Boy Scouts. Often, guys his

age--especially those who play four sports and tip their hair

blond--quit because they think scouting is for dorks. Cozza left

because, he says, "I was shocked that the Boy Scouts, which are

supposed to embrace the best in our country, are embracing the

worst: bigotry."

Cozza, who has been around his family's gay friends as long as

he can remember, was so upset that the Scouts exclude gays that

he helped found an organization meant to pressure the Scouts to

change. The group, Scouting for All, also tried to start its own

troop, open to everyone (even girls). National scouting

headquarters said no. But because of Cozza's credentials--he

became an eagle scout at 14--and because Scouting for All has

become popular on the Web, he's one of the Scouts' nastiest p.r.

problems. He has appeared in newspapers around his hometown of

Petaluma, Calif., and has met with his Congresswoman, Democrat

Lynn Woolsey, to protest the Scouts. On April 30, Cozza is even

scheduled to speak at the gay march on Washington--a straight

kid who will be cheered by a sea of gay protesters.

Privately, some scouting officials allege that Cozza is the

puppet of his social-worker father and a family friend who was

kicked out of the Scouts. In fact, Scott Cozza, 46, endlessly

publicizes Scouting for All. (As his wife Jeanette notes, "Scott

always did the boycott-grapes, Cesar Chavez thing.") And the

Scouts ejected friend Dave Rice, 70, a scout leader for 50

years. Officials said he was preaching his pro-gay politics to

kids, which Rice denies.

But Steven Cozza speaks for himself just fine. When he's called

a "fag" because of his views, he says, he rolls his eyes. He

adds, "Scouting is a good organization. But this part has to



"On my honor I will do my best

To do my duty to God and my Country and to obey the Scout Law;

To help other people at all times;

To keep myself physically strong, mentally awake, and morally


John Cloud/New York With reporting by Leslie Everton Brice/Atlanta, Wendy Cole/Chicago and William Dowell/Camp Y, Law: Can A Scout Be Gay? The Boy Scouts' battle to stay straight goes to the Supreme Court. , Time, 05-01-2000, pp 34+.