TRENTON, N.J. (BP)–Churches which host Boy Scout troops, as well as leaders of the nation’s pro-family movement, will be studying developments in a case — likely headed to the U.S. Supreme Court — in which the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled Aug. 4 that the Boy Scouts of America cannot exclude homosexuals from its programs, including leadership positions.
For now, the ruling applies only in New Jersey, yet among “the most ominous aspects of the opinion is what impact this would have on religious organizations,” Jay Sekulow, head of the evangelical American Center for Law and Justice, told Baptist Press Aug. 5.
“The most pressing issue would be if you had a Christian church in New Jersey, and a Scout troop wants to meet there and they’ve got a homosexual in leadership,” Sekulow said.
“It puts the church in an awkward spot,” he said, “because the Boy Scouts are being forced to comply [with the ruling], but the church does not have to be associated with a view that it would find offensive to its own doctrinal beliefs.
“This opinion does not give the authority to the state, through its anti-discrimination laws, to dictate to churches who can utilize their facilities and who cannot,” Sekulow said.
Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said, “Every American who holds the teachings of Scripture dear should be extremely concerned about this decision. If they can declare a private organization like the Boy Scouts a ‘public accommodation’ today, there is nothing to prevent a similar assault on Christian churches tomorrow.”
The New Jersey court-s 7-0 decision provides “clear and compelling evidence why we need the Religious Liberty Protection Act (RLPA) passed by Congress and signed into law,” Land continued. “RLPA would greatly strengthen the Boy Scout organization’s position in saying that no state can undermine the free exercise of religious rights as guaranteed under the First Amendment and thus protected by the federal courts.
“If one needed proof that segments of our judicial system have taken collective leave of their senses, this decision by the New Jersey Supreme Court would be high on the list of evidence,” Land said, assessing the decision as “rife with breathtakingly dangerous assertions.”
One key example, Land said, is “the assertion that the state has a ‘compelling interest’ in protecting the civil rights of those whose sexual preference is homosexual to the exclusion of the constitutional rights of free expression of another’s religious convictions.” That assertion, he said, “is almost beyond belief, even for an American court in the year of our Lord 1999.”
The New Jersey ruling “turns morality on its head,” Janet Parshall of the Family Research Council reacted to The Washington Post. The court is “forcing an organization designed around teaching virtue to accept the values of homosexual activists,” Parshall said.
Sekulow, whose American Center for Law and Justice had filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case, told USA Today, “This is their biggest win so far and our biggest loss.” It marks the first time a top state court has ruled against the Boy Scouts’ ban on homosexuality. State courts previously had sided with the Boy Scouts in similar cases, the newspaper recounted — in California, Connecticut, Kansas and Oregon.
In California, the state supreme court unanimously ruled in the Boy Scouts’ favor in March 1998, saying the organization is not a business and thus is free to exclude homosexuals, as well as atheists and agnostics, in cases which involved a homosexual Eagle Scout and 9-year-old twins who refused to declare a belief in God, the Associated Press and Washington Post recounted. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal of the California ruling.
The New Jersey case began in 1990 when an Eagle Scout, James Dale, now 29 and living in New York City, was dismissed as an assistant scoutmaster after a local newspaper ran an article about a seminar he was leading on counseling homosexual teenagers, The Post recounted. Dale was identified as co-president of the Lesbian/Gay Alliance at Rutgers University, according to The New York Times. He had been in Scout programs since age 8.
An appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court on First Amendment grounds is ahead, Scouts spokesman Greg Shields told The Post.
“The Boy Scouts of America has long taught traditional family values,” Shields said. “And we maintain that we have a right to hold those values. That’s what is at stake here.”
The case also addresses “whether the Boy Scouts, as a private voluntary organization, has a right to establish criteria for its membership and leadership,” Shields said.
“This decision tramples on the First Amendment free speech and freedom of association rights of the Boy Scouts,” Sekulow said in a news release.
The ACLJ release added, “The Boy Scouts has said that since its inception in 1910 [it] has taught traditional family values and does not consider homosexuality a role model for those values.”
The ACLJ brief in the New Jersey case had voiced opposition to “the misuse of state anti-discrimination laws to compel individuals and organizations to endorse currently fashionable sexual ethics.”
In ruling that New Jersey’s anti-discrimination statute applies to the Boy Scouts, the state supreme court called the organization a “place of public accommodation,” akin to restaurants, theaters and libraries, because of its ties to schools and its partnerships with such government entities as police and fire departments.
In language described as often strongly worded, the New Jersey court stated, “The sad truth is that excluded groups and individuals have been prevented from full participation in the social, economic, and political life of our country,” declaring, “The human price of this bigotry has been enormous. At a fundamental level, adherence to the principles of equality demands that our legal system protect the victims of invidious discrimination.”
Dismissing Scout arguments that the words “morally straight” and “clean” in the Boy Scout Oath entail a statement against homosexuality, the New Jersey court said it doubts that young boys “ascribe any meaning to these terms other than a commitment to be good.”
“Nothing before us … suggests that one of the Boy Scouts’ purposes is to promote the view that homosexuality is immoral,” the court said.
Homosexual rights groups hailed the court victory, likening it to a Supreme Court decision which opened the once-exclusive Rotary and Kiwanis clubs to women and minorities.
New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman affirmed the ruling during a public appearance in Bergen County, saying she does not believe in discrimination “in any form” and that a person’s sexual orientation is a private matter, The New York Times reported.
“If the troop leader is a good leader, there’s no reason to worry,” Whitman was quoted as saying about a Scout leader’s sexual orientation.
Boy Scout attorney George Davidson, meanwhile, told USA Today the New Jersey ruling has “a silver lining … [because] it gives the Boy Scouts the first opportunity to go to the U.S. Supreme Court and get a definitive ruling to put an end to these lawsuits.” The Washington Post noted that the Scouts have faced “repeated challenges” to its policies in the last decade.
“It’s a sad day when the state dictates to parents what role models they must provide for their children,” Davidson said to the Associated Press.
Dwayne Hastings contributed to this article.