Boys Out in America

Human Rights

In 1973, fresh out of college, Dennis St. Jean was hired by the Boy Scouts of America. He quickly worked his way up, serving in a variety of executive positions across the Northeast. In 1991 he was transferred to the BSA's headquarters in Irving, Texas, where, as Assistant Director of Professional Development, he taught management skills to thousands of employees across the country. Ten years later, St. Jean stepped down and moved to the Florida Keys to become General Manager of Sea Base in the Florida Keys. There, he and his seasonal staff of 2000 supervised the 11,000 Boy Scouts who came year-round to snorkel, scuba, and sail at one of scouting's three national high adventure programs.

But on January 28, 2005, according to St. Jean, he became the highest-ranking and longest-serving professional scouter in the history of the BSA to be fired merely for being gay. St. Jean had just successfully led Sea Base through a trying hurricane season when a representative from Irving came to Florida and presented him with the "evidence": a copy of his bill from Lighthouse Court Gay Guesthouses, where he had vacationed months before. (St. Jean believes the bill was obtained by a disgruntled Sea Base employee who had somehow found out about the trip.) Days later, a registered letter from Irving stated that the BSA had "lost confidence" in St. Jean's ability to serve as an employee. "I was like a deer in headlights," recalls St. Jean. "I was dumbfounded--I felt devastated, angry, hurt." The BSA's national spokesperson refused to comment on what he called a "personnel issue," but St. Jean, who says he had never received a professional evaluation that was less than glowing, can see no other explanation for why he was let go.

It is not at all clear exactly when the BSA started forbidding membership to gays and non-theists; for the first seven decades after the organization's 1910 founding the issue never came up in a public way. It wasn't until a series of court cases in the wake of a lawsuit filed by a California Scout--who was forced out after taking a boy to senior prom--that the BSA's membership policies became a legal issue.

The BSA's requires all of its approximately four million youth and adult members (who include about 4,000 employees) to meet its discriminatory membership standards, which were protected by the Supreme Court's 2000 ruling in Boy Scouts of America v. Dale. The 5 to 4 decision agreed with the BSA's claim that its membership policies were a form of speech legally known as "expressive association," and were thereby protected by the First Amendment. Since the decision the BSA has shown no sign of changing its mind, and that's angered many who, Like St. Jean, have otherwise felt that they had a home in scouting.

While the National Council's expenditures--$125 million in 2004--are privately funded, the organization has long benefited from a wide variety of in kind contributions and support from state, local, and federal governments. Dale triggered a battery of anti-discrimination lawsuits against the BSA, resulting in court decisions that restricted governmental support for the organization. The most important case yet decided involves the Boy Scout National Jamboree at Fort A.P. Hill--an Army base in Northern Virginia, which has hosted the event every four years since 1981--which closes its nine-day run tomorrow. An estimated 40,000 scouts and leaders from across the country will attend this year's summer camp-like gathering. The Department of Defense views the Jamboree as a unique opportunity to educate boys about careers in the military, and gives the military experience in setting up an event akin to running a refugee camp. The Pentagon expects to spend about $7.3 million on in-kind services in support of the Jamboree. This support accounts for about 80 percent of all federal funds directed to the Boy Scouts, according to Adam Schwartz, an attorney for the ACLU. But this spring, a Federal District Court judge for Northern Illinois declared the BSA a religious institution, and hence ruled that the military funds violated the Establishment Clause--which limits government support for organized religion.

To fight its many legal and public relations battles, the BSA is relying on support from a long roster of conservative and religious organizations, who see the Scouts as just another front in the ongoing culture wars to preserve what they, and the BSA, call "traditional values." Robert Bork Jr.--a former fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, and the son of Ronald Reagan's failed Supreme Court nominee--has been hired to coordinate public relations for the scouts; his campaign's centerpiece website recommends related articles from The Weekly Standard and Citizen, the magazine of James Dobson's Focus on the Family. The Federalist Society, the foremost legal think tank of the right, recently hosted a panel on the BSA's struggles, featuring Ken Starr. Scout Councils in Florida and Georgia have held fundraisers that have featured conservative celebrities Ann Coulter and Oliver North.

Mark Noel, a leader in the Coalition for Inclusive Scouting, a national network of activists working to reform the BSA's exclusive policies, thinks that liberal parents and scouts have been "voting with their feet," deciding that Scouting is no longer appropriate for their family after hearing about the discriminatory polices at issue in the lawsuits. Indeed, since Dale, Boy Scout rolls have dropped 3.8 percent. Cub Scout numbers have dropped by a staggering 13.8 percent--a decrease that likely foreshadows a similar drop among older Scouts in a few years time. But the reduced public support has perhaps had a more direct effect: One Portland BSA employee attributed a 10 percent drop in his Council's enrollment after the city forbid recruitment during school hours. Meanwhile, with corporate sponsors and local United Way affiliates cutting funds to BSA Councils, hiring has slowed. According to St. Jean, the BSA calculates that each new professional scouter usually recruits about 1,500 new boys.

The BSA, for its part, insists that the decline is unrelated to the fallout from its membership policies, instead pointing to changing age demographics and a general decrease in interest in scouting-related activities. But the population of eligible boys has held steady, and the Girl Scouts--a similar yet separate organization that does not discriminate on the basis of religion or sexual orientation--has continued to grow.

No matter the exact cause, however, the drop in enrollment is increasing the influence of those within the organization who support BSA's discriminatory rules. Internal efforts to reform membership policies have been thwarted by the BSA's Religious Relations Committee, which has long been dominated by representatives of conservative churches. (The Mormon Church, whose adherents are about 2 percent of the general population but account for about 13 percent of BSA membership, is usually described as the chief impediment.)

But reform efforts are unlikely to get far as long as the scouts continue to stifle dissent. New leaders are required to sign a pledge stating that they believe that someone cannot be the "best kind" of citizen without believing in God. Activists report that the BSA maintains a "litmus test" and refuses to promote any professional who disagrees with the policy.

Noel, concerned about the future of Scouting, points to polls that show younger Americans to be more tolerant than previous generations; these future parents will soon decide whether or not to encourage their sons to join. And he worries that Scouting, which used to respect the values of a broader swath of Americans, will have made up their minds for them.

It's been more than six months since St. Jean was fired. So far, his efforts to reach an out-of-court financial settlement with the BSA for wrongful termination have been unsuccessful; he soon plans to file suit against the organization, under a Monroe County, Florida, ordinance prohibiting employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and has retained an out-of-state lawyer who previously obtained a settlement for another gay client fired by the BSA.

He's been unemployed since his firing. With his seniority stripped away, the new job he'll soon start will pay about half what he earned at Sea Base. And it will not be with the organization he joined as an eight year old cub scout and "never left"--that is, until they kicked him out.

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