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For week ended August 15, 1999 Posted 29 Aug 1999

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Summarized by Eric Bunker

Religion Today
(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.

Copyright 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001 Kent Larsen · Privacy Information