Boy Scouts' policy on gays, atheists rankles California lawmakers

Stressing to millions of boys the value of honesty, loyalty, honor and good deeds is not enough to win a commendation from the California Assembly – if you exclude gays and atheists.

Boy Scouts of America, one of the last major youth organizations to deny membership because of sexual or religious views, was applauded Tuesday for its good works but ripped by a legislative committee as hurtful to many families.

The Assembly dust-up comes in the wake of national headlines stemming from the ouster last month of an Ohio Cub Scout leader, Jennifer Tyrrell, 32, because she is lesbian.

Tuesday's controversy also marks the latest jab by a Democratic-controlled Legislature against a private organization that won a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2000 ensuring its free-speech right to exclude gays and lesbians from membership.

"The continued discriminatory policy of the Scouts is deeply offensive to me," said Assemblyman Mike Feuer, a Los Angeles Democrat who chairs the Judiciary Committee that met Tuesday.

The slap at the Boy Scouts came on the same day that the Senate's Judiciary Committee passed a bill banning minors from participating in controversial therapy programs to change their sexual orientations, and requiring adults to sign consent forms indicating they understand potential dangers.

Friction over the Boy Scouts was sparked by a proposed commendation, Assembly Concurrent Resolution 94, to applaud the group for its commitment to train youths in responsible citizenship, character development, leadership and public service.

"I'm sure that each of you has been personally affected by this organization," said Assemblyman Mike Morrell, a Rancho Cucamonga Republican who crafted the measure in honor of the Boy Scouts' 102nd anniversary.

Morrell said that he "didn't want to politicize this" by amending his proposal, as sought by Feuer, to blast the membership policy.

Feuer quickly turned thumbs down on ACR 94, saying that legislators should consider all aspects of an organization before touting it.

By comparison, if the Boy Scouts had decided to exclude African Americans, rather than homosexuals, lawmakers would not likely be crafting resolutions of support, Feuer said.

"I don't see the difference between discrimination based on race and on sexual orientation," Feuer added.

In a party-line vote, Democrats killed Morrell's resolution, then passed an alternative by Feuer that commended the Boy Scouts but urged it not to discriminate based on sexual orientation or religious belief.

Numerous other youth groups welcome members of all stripes, including Girl Scouts, Camp Fire USA, and Boys and Girls Clubs of America, according to Feuer's resolution.

Feuer's measure, Assembly Concurrent Resolution 128, now heads to the Assembly floor.

Deron Smith, spokesman for Boy Scouts of America, released a statement Tuesday thanking the Judiciary Committee for recognizing its positive impact and touching only briefly on its criticism.

"We fully understand and appreciate that not everyone will agree with any one position or policy on its membership standards," he said. "To disagree does not mean to disrespect, and scouting teaches its members to treat everyone with courtesy and respect."

Boy Scouts does not inquire about the sexual orientation of its members, and it is not a forum for discussion about such topics, but it does not grant membership to people who are "open or avowed homosexuals," Smith said.

Asked about its policy regarding religion, Smith said that belief in God is a foundation of Boy Scouts and that "no one can reach their full potential without belief in a higher power." All members must abide by those principles, he said.

Feuer's Assembly Concurrent Resolution 128, in complimenting the Boy Scouts, said that "honor, loyalty and courage are hallmarks of Scouts who admirably represent the community, council and troop in their daily lives."

But "the discriminatory policy of the Boy Scouts of America is contrary to the policy of the state of California," the resolution added.

"We just can't stand for that in California," said Alice Kessler of Equality California, an advocacy group for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender residents.

At least two resolutions similar to ACR 128 have been passed by the Legislature in years past – ACR 89 in 2003 and ACR 69 in 2005.