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Gay Ban One Of Many Issues Chipping Away At Scouts


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Gay Ban One Of Many Issues Chipping Away At Scouts

by David Crary, Associated Press

Posted: August 6, 2005 4:00 pm ET

(Washington) With a rousing presidential visit just days after a deadly accident, the just-completed National Scout Jamboree epitomized the recent tumult roiling the Boy Scouts of America - tragedy, high-profile scandals, lawsuits and dwindling ranks on one hand, but also a new wave of support extending to the highest levels in Washington.

To some of their critics, the Scouts are now a polarizing organization - determined to stick by policies that exclude atheists and gays. To supporters, the Scouts remain an American treasure, teaching boys from diverse backgrounds such timeless values as duty, citizenship, and teamwork.

"The controversies don't flow down to the scouting level," said John Eastman, a law professor who doubles as assistant scoutmaster in Long Beach, Calif. "They make not one whit of difference in how we conduct the program."

The problems, however, have drawn the close attention of the Scouts' national leadership, which is seeking to reverse membership declines, end a spate of scandals involving false enrollment data and tighten procedures aiming at keeping pedophiles out of Scout jobs.

Among the recent challenges:

-The deaths of four adult Scout leaders in an electrical accident at the Jamboree in Virginia, and five other deaths this summer from drowning and lightning during Scout outings in Wyoming, New Mexico, Utah and California.

-Investigations in Atlanta, northern Alabama and Tampa, Fla., of allegations that membership rolls of some Scouting programs were inflated to boost contributions. A Scout official resigned in Atlanta and the local United Way held back $250,000 after auditors found that nearly 5,000 boys, mostly black, were falsely registered in an inner-city program.

-Lawsuits by the American Civil Liberties Union seeking to limit government support for the Scouts because they exclude gays and require participants to declare belief in God.

-Several sex-abuse cases involving former troop leaders, and a child-pornography case in Texas against a senior Scout official who ran a task force combating sexual abuse. Douglas Sovereign Smith Jr., who had worked for the Scouts for 39 years, pleaded guilty to possessing and distributing child pornography; he faces at least five years in prison.

The Scouts' spokesman, Gregg Shields, said the organization is constantly seeking better ways to protect its boys from abuse, focusing on background screening and education programs teaching volunteers and parents how to spot suspicious behavior.

"Criminal background checks are not perfect and occasionally there's a problem," Shields said. "One child abused is one too many."

Shields depicted the falsified membership cases as "a few isolated incidents" and outlined steps being taken to tighten verification of enrollment data. "Some people paid for their bad actions with their jobs," he said.

Yet Atlanta civil rights leader Joe Beasley said he was unimpressed by the Scouts' handling of the membership controversy. "They're trying to do as little as they can to get by," said Beasley, who also contends that the Scouts' national office lagged behind other organizations in giving blacks an appropriate share of top positions.

Shields disagreed, but said the Scouts don't have a racial breakdown of Scouts or officials.

He acknowledged that the Scouts need more adult volunteers in the inner cities - and elsewhere. While the number of youths in Scouting dropped 6 percent from 2000 to 2004, to nearly 3.15 million, the number of adult volunteers plunged 16 percent - from 1.4 million to 1,173,064.

Shields said the Scouts want to boost recruiting in minority neighborhoods, immigrant communities and Indian reservations; Scout manuals now appear in multiple languages.

"But our biggest challenge is competition for a boy's time, for a family's time," he said. "The issue isn't homosexuality and atheism. When we ask parents why they don't get involved, they tell us they don't have time."

Some critics acknowledge that the Scouts, for now, have weathered the storm that followed a 2000 Supreme Court ruling upholding their right to exclude gays. But Matt Coles of the ACLU's Lesbian and Gay Rights Project said the policy will gradually exact a toll.

"The Scouts took a stand in the culture war, and in the long run this will hurt them because they're on the wrong side," Coles said. "More and more Americans are accepting the notion that gay people are just folks."

Scott Cozza of Petaluma, Calif., president of Scouting for All, expressed skepticism at the strong support for the Scouts shown by President Bush at the Jamboree, and by virtually every member of Congress in recent votes.

"Bush has the audacity to say no child shall be left behind," Cozza said. "Those words mean absolutely nothing when gay kids and atheist kids are being left behind."

Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., an openly gay congressmen, cast one of the "No" votes on a pro-Scouts resolution approved by the House 391-3 in November. The Scouts, he said, were "a very good organization" clinging to hurtful policies that would bar him from being a volunteer.

"I object to allowing them to use funds paid for by all taxpayers when they say taxpayers who don't agree with their religious views can't join them," Frank said.

Eastman, the Long Beach scoutmaster who heads the conservative Claremont Institute's Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence, contends that most Americans embrace the Scouts' principles.

"Every year, I lead the boys in a local tree-lighting parade," he said. "The fire truck, the police get applause - but the group that really gets the crowd to their feet is the Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts."

©Associated Press 2005


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