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Boy Scouts and United Way Agree to Disagree

Despite calls for a boycott, local reaction muted to split between United Way and Boy Scouts

By Michael King, Fri., Nov. 21, 2003

Boy Scouts and United Way Agree to Disagree

Although one local celebrity has described the Boy Scouts' decision to part ways with United Way over its nondiscrimination policy as the equivalent of capitulating to "terrorists," local reaction to the change has thus far been fairly muted. "We've gotten some calls, some e-mails, and a few faxes," said Jan Hames, spokeswoman for United Way Capital Area. "Most of the comments so far are not in support, although we've had a few people congratulate us. I would add that most of the calls thus far, pro and con, have not been from contributors [to United Way]. But we welcome their calls and the dialogue, because they're all part of the community."

Last week, radio host Bob Cole of KVET-FM described the split between United Way and the Boy Scouts as a capitulation to "outside pressure groups," and told listeners they should respond by ending donations to United Way Capital Area. Cole didn't name any groups he accused of pressuring United Way, and both United Way and Boy Scout leaders insist that the decisions were reached internally after much discussion and not in response to any external pressure. "This is just like negotiating with terrorists," said Cole, although he and co-host Sammy Allred also denounced callers for "gay-bashing."

A few days later, Cole told the Chronicle that he had been speaking out of "frustration" over a decision he believes puts "political correctness" over the good done by the Boy Scouts, adding, "I am not in a position to be calling for a boycott of United Way." Cole says he supports the work done by the United Way, but believes a sexual orientation policy is irrelevant to the Boy Scouts. "The United Way is a good organization, but this decision disappoints me, and I was speaking out of the frustration of that day. I'm not calling for a boycott. What I am about most is that the program isn't harmed."

On Nov. 13, United Way and the Capitol Area Council of the Boy Scouts of America jointly announced that effective July 1, 2004, the Boy Scouts will no longer be a "partner agency" of the United Way. (Partner agencies receive direct grants from the United Way's Community Investment Fund, over and above the donations specifically designated for them by individual donors.) The Boy Scouts will get their current annual grant of about $157,000 through next June, and roughly the same amount in transitional funding for the following year. The grant provides about 5% of the 15-county Central Texas organization's annual $2.9 million budget, and the Scouts receive about the same amount or more annually from individually designated donations collected through United Way.

Both organizations say the parting is amicable and developed mutually over several months. The local Boy Scouts decided no longer to pursue partnership status (renewed every two years) after the local United Way adopted a nondiscriminatory "inclusiveness" policy that bars partnership agencies from "excluding anyone on the basis of race, color, religion, gender, ethnicity, national origin, age, disability, sexual orientation, or any other factor not relevant to a person's ability to contribute to our organization." The national Boy Scouts organization, based in Irving, enforces a nationwide policy against leadership or membership by "avowed homosexuals," and the Scouts' Capitol Area Council decided it would no longer apply for partnership because of what it calls "mutually exclusive policies."

According to national United Way spokesman Philip Jones, United Way Capital Area has joined about 60 of the national organization's approximately 1,400 local affiliates in adopting a nondiscriminatory policy concerning sexual orientation, in the wake of the 2000 U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding the Boy Scouts' right, as a private organization, to ban gays. "We have no national policy," said Jones, "and we do not dictate local fundraising policy. Those affiliates that have adopted nondiscriminatory policies are responding to local needs around that issue." The affiliates no longer providing grant support to the Boy Scouts include those in Philadelphia, Miami, and San Francisco. Gregg Shields, spokesman for the national BSA, said that how local councils raise money is up to them and that most councils are "doing quite well" despite the decision by some United Way affiliates to adopt nondiscriminatory policies.

"The Boy Scouts has a set of values that are shared by the organization nationwide," said Shields. "We don't force our values on anyone else." Shields called the exclusion of openly gay Scouts -- particularly from leadership positions -- as no different from other membership standards, such as age limits. "This really isn't an issue for youth members," he said. "If a youth were to say that they were gay, we've instructed our scoutmasters that they should talk to a mom or dad, or talk to a religious adviser about it. It's not an appropriate discussion for a scoutmaster."

The position of the national organization has sometimes put local councils in conflict with state or local laws banning discrimination. Last spring, when the Philadelphia BSA council attempted to adopt a nondiscriminatory policy in accordance with both city law and United Way policy, the national organization threatened to revoke the council's charter and replace its board. "We have a national policy," says Shields, "and it isn't going to change."

Randall Ellis, director of the Lesbian/Gay Rights Lobby of Texas, called it ironic that "the discriminatory practices of the Boy Scouts are coming back to haunt them. ... A change will come [by the BSA] one day, because people and businesses in the community don't agree with discrimination."

Bruce Walcutt, president of the Capitol Area Council of BSA, said he called Cole in an attempt to explain the situation, on air if necessary, but Cole was unreceptive. "I didn't even get that far," said Walcutt. "He said, 'I just can't go there.' It was a very brief conversation."

"We are absolutely not supporting any boycott," continued Walcutt. "It would hurt us, too -- but we'll be fine. United Way serves people that desperately need help, and they'll be hurt the most. A boycott would be tragic for them and tragic for the community."

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