Boy Scouts from Balboa

    The issue isn’t about whether the Boy Scouts of America are a good organization or a bad organization, and it isn’t even really about homophobia or religious zeal. The Jan. 8 decision by the San Diego City Council to cancel its lease with the Boy Scouts for Camp Balboa at Balboa Park is an issue of protecting individual freedom.

    The Boy Scouts should know better than most about the importance of separating public and private organizations. It was only a few years ago that the Supreme Court decided that because the Boy Scouts of America is a private institution, they have the right to incorporate religion into their activities and ideology. They were even found to have the right to exclude homosexuals from leadership positions.

    However, it was just in August that a federal judge ruled against the Boy Scouts in a case brought by the American Civil Liberties Union, deciding that the city of San Diego cannot lease public land to a group that discriminates against homosexuals and those who do not believe in God.

    The defining issue that enabled the court to rule in favor of the ACLU was whether the lease extension gave a preference or a special benefit to a “”religious organization.”” The city’s defense of the case rested on the position that, while the Boy Scouts may follow certain religious principles, it was not a “”religious organization”” subject to the restrictions in the state and federal constitutions.

    But during the course of the case, the Boy Scouts admitted in court documents that it was in fact a “”religious organization.”” Based upon that admission, Federal District Judge Napoleon Jones determined that the lease was invalid because the process by which it was extended violated both the state and federal constitutions in providing special preference and benefits to a religious organization.

    Under current law, no public entity can provide special preference or benefits to a religious organization, whether a church, a mosque, a synagogue or a youth group. Although religious organizations can indeed lease public property and obtain other government benefits, they must do so on equal terms with other potential leasees.

    In a sense, this case is not only about previous decisions that have been made, but also about decisions to be made in the future. Allowing Boy Scouts to sing songs around the campfire in San Diego was obviously not the hot issue concerning the framers of the Constitution. But they were concerned about a public office giving preference to one religious organization or another.

    There’s an on-campus example of protecting individual freedom at the cost of what might seem like common sense. The Koala has spent the past few years publishing a newspaper that many find at best disrespectful and crude. But they are allowed to continue printing because they are protected under the First Amendment’s guarantee of the freedom of the press. Although it might seem that there are few pairs as disparate as the staff of the Koala and the Boy Scout troop at Camp Balboa, it is the same principle that directs public interaction with both organizations. And it is the same principle that must be upheld in this decision.

    The Boy Scouts of America is a private organization with professed religious aspects ‹ its pledge includes a pledge to God ‹ and documented instances of discrimination toward openly homosexual men. Those assertions shouldn’t overshadow the organization’s philanthropic and positive capabilities. This is an organization that generates unity among young men, instills beliefs in togetherness and fosters friendships. It’s an organization that has done a lot of good things for a lot of individuals. But none of that matters as far upholding the division between church and state.

    It’s impossible and contradictory to attempt to pick and choose who should be protected under the First Amendment. It’s impossible to protect The New York Times without also protecting the Aryan Nation, and it’s impossible to protect the Boy Scouts of America without also protecting the Ku Klux Klan.

    The uniformity of freedom regardless of belief is the inherently beautiful concept of the Bill of Rights, but it works both ways. And to paraphrase Thomas Jefferson, it’s only when that freedom is limited ‹ perhaps even with the best of intentions ‹ that it will be entirely lost.

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