Summarized by Eric Bunker
(Long Island) NY Newsday (AP) 12Aug99 L1
By Richard N. Ostling: AP Religion Writer
NEW YORK -- On Aug. 4, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that the
scouts violated that state's anti-discrimination law by excluding
avowed homosexuals from leadership positions. The case involved an
assistant scoutmaster ousted because he was co-leader of a gay and
lesbian group. The justices ruled that the government's interest in
ending discrimination outweighs the scouts' constitutional claim of
freedom of association that a private group is free to decide whom to
include and exclude from membership.
In 1991, New Jersey amended its Law Against Discrimination to forbid
exclusion based on sexual orientation. The law covers any "place of
public accommodation," from stores and restaurants to hospitals and
schools. Other states have similar statutes. The law exempts
"distinctly private" groups and the educational facilities of "a bona
fide religious or sectarian institution." The justices decided the
BSA does not qualify as "private" because it's too big, does public
recruiting and it is not religious enough as it does not hold beliefs
specific to any religion.
The U.S. Supreme Court may eventually need to settle these issues.
Only last year, California's Supreme Court decided the other way and
defined the BSA as a private club that can legally bar not only
homosexual leaders but also atheists, whom the scouts said, violated
their religious principles.
Whatever Scouting's status, religious rights aren't what they used to
be. At one time, U.S. Supreme Court doctrine held that the government
needed a "compelling" reason before it could impose any substantial
burden on the First Amendment guarantee of free exercise of religion.
The Supreme Court tossed out its strict standard in 1990. Congress
re-imposed it in 1993, but the Supreme Court invalidated that law
four years later.
Now, an unusually broad alliance of 80 denominations and religious
organizations is making another bid to revive the strict standard,
through the Religious Liberty Protection Act, which passed the House
last month and is awaiting Senate action.
If the courts can require the BSA to embrace homosexuality, could
churches some day face the same demand? The Washington lobbyist for
the Southern Baptist Convention, Will Dodson, said that's a
"tremendous threat" in light of the New Jersey ruling.