Sailor Suit

ACLU ready to sue county over Boy Scouts control of Newport real estate

Photo by Jack GouldOn Coast Highway in Newport Beach, between the Balboa Bay Club and a currently empty bay-front building that typically houses pricey seafood restaurants, is the Sea Scout Base.

It's a choice property overlooking the north shore of Lido Isle in Newport Harbor. Operated by the Orange County Council of the Boy Scouts of America since FDR's second term, the base allows America's boys to learn sailing and marine science while wearing geeky colonial-type uniforms.

The Scouts don't pay a dime to lease the million-dollar property, which wouldn't be a big deal if not for the fact that not all of America's boys can use the base. Since the organization's 1910 founding, the Boy Scouts have banned atheists and homosexuals from their elite troops.

Following a Supreme Court decision last summer and a unanimous vote of the county Board of Supervisors in September, the Scouts have achieved a unique distinction in American politics. For purposes of discrimination, they're a private organization whose anti-gay policies are protected by the First Amendment; for purposes of government subsidies like the Sea Scout Base, however, they're a public group.

The county board's 5-0 vote on Sept. 26 extended the Scouts' free use of the base until 2039. That move allowed the group to begin a $3.5 million expansion. But sometime in the next few weeks, the Southern California office of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) will sue the county to kill the lease.

Their case comes straight from the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The problem, as the ACLU sees it, lies not with the Boy Scouts—who rightly see themselves as a private organization that can ban whomever they please—but with the county.

"We're dealing with a piece of property that is obviously very valuable and belongs to the people of the county," said ACLU attorney Marla Matthews, who is handling the planned suit. "The county, a public body, is subsidizing discrimination, since the Boy Scouts are a private organization that excludes people. That violates equal protection."

The ACLU has already drawn blood with this tactic in San Diego. There, in a remarkably similar case, the Scouts enjoyed a $1-per-year lease on a 16-acre facility in Balboa Park. In November, the Scouts' Pacific Desert Council went before the San Diego City Council to ask for an immediate 50-year lease extension so they could start raising nearly $2 million to fund improvements.

The council didn't buy it, and it banned the Boy Scouts from using the city's public facilities. The San Diego Police Department also dismantled its Explorer program and cut all ties to the Boy Scouts—something the LAPD and the LA County Sheriff's Department have threatened to do should the Scouts continue their discriminatory practices.

Across the country, the backlash against the Scouts is small but significant. In late November, citing city law banning official ties to discriminatory groups, the LA City Council voted 11-0 to sever relations with the Scouts. Other cities like Oakland and Chicago had done so weeks earlier.

So far, 24 United Way agencies have terminated their partnerships with the Scouts over discrimination. That's next to nothing; there are 1,400 United Way agencies nationwide. But considering that the Scouts constantly advertise their own history of philanthropic and community ventures, the number of exclusions ought to be closer to zero. A number of major corporations have also cut ties to the Scouts since the Supreme Court ruling, including Novell, Textron, Chase Manhattan Bank and Levi Strauss. Wells Fargo broke with the Scouts over discrimination decades ago.

These are serious slights to an organization as large and venerated as the Boy Scouts. Then again, the Scouts are themselves an immensely wealthy and powerful organization. Federal tax returns for just the Scouts' Orange County Council in 1999 show $5.3 million in revenue and nearly $25 million in assets. The returns show that the council's executive director clears $180,000 per year in salary and another $17,000 in benefits and expenses.

The Scouts' public response to the backlash has been bureaucratic and unflinching—about what we'd expect from an organization that drills its boys like army recruits.

"We believe an avowed homosexual is not a role model for the values espoused in the Scout Oath and Law," reads an official Boy Scout statement. "Scouting's record of inclusion is impressive by any standard. However, we do ask all of our members to do their best to live the Scout Oath and Law."

The Scout Law is the Scouts' honor code, designed to "instill values" for "character education." It's drilled into every one of the nation's nearly 4 million Scouts. Most will remember it long after they finally grow out of their uniforms: "A Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent."

Missing from that "law" are the words honest, tolerant, curious and intelligent, but hey—no one's perfect. Especially in Orange County, where the Scouts' top benefactors are men who exemplify right-wing intolerance and political scandal.

There's big Ed Laird, the council chairman. He's a Huntington Beach power broker who runs a paint-manufacturing firm and a consulting firm dedicated to helping toxic industries avoid clean-air regulations. Laird is also a regular donor to state and local right-wing officials—most notably fellow Boy Scout booster and HB Councilman Dave Garofalo, who's currently facing numerous corruption and conflict-of-interest charges from state and local law-enforcement agencies.

But the big money comes from Laird and his right-wing buddies George Argyros and Carl Karcher, each of whom donated $1 million to the Scouts in 1997. Developer Argyros, no fan of either representative democracy or popular will, has already spent $3 million of his own money trying to shove a massive airport down South County throats. Karcher, who founded the Carl's Jr. fast-food franchise, is notorious for his anti-homosexual views.

To the Boy Scouts, perhaps, these intolerant, anti-democratic men have "character." And that's fine. But, as the ACLU will point out in its suit, such character formation, however legal, should proceed without public subsidies.

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