Boy Scouts Get Special Rights

Feds propose regulations guaranteeing

school access to scouts

Some gay and civil rights groups are objecting to proposed regulations from the U.S. Department of Education that would guarantee the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) access to public schools if those schools receive federal funds and they allow other groups to meet on their premises.

“We feel it is completely inappropriate to make this kind of tacit endorsement of the discrimination carried out by the Boy Scouts,” said Eliza Byard, deputy director at the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), an advocacy group that aids queer students.

The BSA bans openly gay scouts and scout leaders. The group’s use of public schools for meetings became an issue after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2000 that it had a First Amendment right to that ban.

Following that decision, some gay groups pressed school districts across the country to sever their ties with the BSA. A small number of districts ended or limited the BSA’s access to local schools.

Congress responded by passing the Boy Scouts Equal Access Act, which was signed into law in early 2002. The proposed regulations, released on October 19, are meant to implement that law.

The BSA, like all other student clubs, is protected by the original Equal Access Act that was enacted in 1984. That federal law requires public schools that receive federal funds and allow at least one student-led, non-curriculum club to meet on its premises outside of class-time to allow all other clubs to meet. Schools can only avoid that requirement by banning all such clubs.

The 1984 law was promoted by elected officials as an effort to allow Christian clubs to meet on public school grounds, but a range of groups have since taken advantage of its provisions.

GLSEN works with more than 2,500 student clubs, including gay-straight alliances, in secondary schools and when these clubs are barred from meeting they cite the 1984 law in order to gain access.

“The irony is that federal law is extremely clear,” Byard said. “The original equal access law guarantees these clubs the right to meet.”

The latest law covers just six groups, including the BSA, that are among roughly 90 patriotic societies that have a charter under U.S. law. Most of the 90 are veteran groups.

The other “youth groups” are Little League Baseball, Future Farmers of America, the Girl Scouts of America, the Boys and Girls Clubs of America and the Big Brothers/Big Sisters of America.

The 2002 law guarantees these groups the lowest fee if schools are charging for meeting space. The groups can appeal any denial of meeting space to the Office of Civil Rights at the education department where the school may face the loss of federal funds.

“Most groups can’t go to the education department and have the school’s funding threatened by the education department,” said Christopher E. Anders, legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union. “It’s giving the Boy Scouts and this handful of groups special rights, special criteria, that are not available to any other organization.”

Michael Adams, spokesman for Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, said that it was the gay-straight alliances that often face obstacles in schools.

“We spend a significant amount of our time running around the country having to sue school districts that are denying access to gay-straight alliances,” he said and added that the BSA has no such problems.

“This is a perfect example of singling out one group for special rights and special treatment,” Adams said. “It is a group that has no need for special protections while at the same time completely ignoring the needs of a group that needs protections.”

Lambda has brought “a number of lawsuits in the last couple of years” on behalf of gay-straight alliances that have been banned or denied meeting space in schools.

“We get many, many more calls from gay-straight alliances that are facing problems,” Adams said. “It is a constant problem.”

Byard would not say that the BSA was getting special treatment, but she did say that the announcement, coming less than two weeks before Election Day, was suspect.

“One might ask questions about the timing of the decision,” Byard said. “November 2 is next week. In a climate where the equal rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are under attack, I think it is unfortunate that the DOE would inject another element of anti-gay discrimination into public debate. The law passed three years ago.”

Calls seeking comment from the BSA and the federal Department of Education were not returned.

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