Red Wing Republican Eagle

The Red Wing City Council, on the recommendation of the city Human Rights Commission, is encouraging residents to not financially support the local Boy Scouts of America units due to the national organization’s policy of excluding individuals from serving as scoutmasters on the basis of sexual orientation. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Scouts’ policy on a 5-4 vote in June.

The effort of the Human Rights Commission is directed toward Boy Scouts, but the danger is that the United Way — and thus the entire community — has the most to lose in the debate. That is evidenced by the outpouring of comments to People’s Platform and in letters on this page.

The City Council vote is troubling on several fronts, not the least that city officials may have underestimated the divisiveness and emotions of the issue. At minimum, the commission’s letter deserved a full public airing with ample opportunity for Boy Scouts and United Way representatives to speak.

The Boy Scouts policy is controversial and there is no public consensus. Even the courts are divided. The case went to the U.S. Supreme Court after the Scouts appealed a ruling of the New Jersey Supreme Court that said the exclusion of homosexuals is discriminatory. Before the Supreme Court’s narrow ruling in favor of Scouts, state courts in California, Connecticut, Kansas and Oregon also had upheld the Scouts’ rights, as a private organization, to set membership criteria.

The differing implications of the Supreme Court’s ruling, as noted in the accompanying editorial, only have added to the confusion.

We’ll not attempt to weigh in on whether the Scouting policy is right or wrong. There are persuasive arguments on both sides of the issue.

We also appreciate the work of the Human Rights Commission. We support its work to create a welcome and supportive environment for all. Its mission statement dictates that the commission shall address uncomfortable issues and often take unpopular positions.

But we question whether due process was served. Consider:

The Human Rights Commission considered the issue and took a stance without formally hearing representatives of the Boy Scouts. The chairman said the role of the commission was not to address the Boy Scouts policy, but rather to address United Way’s response to the policy. A United Way representative did attend.

The commission’s letter was not on the City Council’s agenda, but was presented by the commission’s chairman during the “public comment” period. The local United Way learned of the council’s vote in the next day’s Republican Eagle. A United Way Board member did comment on the issue at the council meeting, but his attendance was happenstance. He was there for a different reason.

The council vote itself is being misrepresented. Some wrongly believe that the City Council action effectively dictates that the United Way cannot give money to Scouts. Others believe the local United Way already has decided to continue supporting Scouts.

Both points are wrong. The United Way is encouraging individuals to express their concerns — on both sides of the issue. The opinions will be among the factors considered when the United Way Board votes in March on the distribution of money from the campaign drive.

Individuals already have the right to place restrictions on donations — either to give their individual contributions all to one organization or to exclude a specific organization. United Way has maintained that policy for years.

Lost in the debate is that the United Way supports 41 other worthwhile community organizations in addition to Boy Scouts. For many, the United Way funds are vitally important to helping the groups make the Red Wing area a better place to live.

Council President Mike Hall says he is considering whether to address the issue at the council’s next meeting in order to be sure the issue is thoroughly discussed. That only could occur if a council member is willing to make a motion to revisit the issue, and the motion receives a majority vote. We encourage Hall to seek to bring the issue back to the table, but we also wonder aloud if the damage has been done.

Lastly, we think the community must ask whether this issue ever should have reached the City Council. We appreciate the mission of the Human Rights Commission, but in its defense regarding writing the original letter, the commission refers to United Way as a public foundation. This reflects a basic misunderstanding of the United Way, which is funded by individuals and corporate donations. No public agency directly contributes to the Red Wing Area United Way.

Concerns of the Human Rights Commission are legitimate. Btu we believe the message could have been delivered to the United Way and Boy Scouts in a more constructive form. The commission’s approach has given the debate a negative, divisive turn in which everyone could end up the poorer.

What the Supreme Court said

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Boy Scouts could lawfully exclude individuals from serving as scoutmasters on the basis of sexual orientation.

By extension, the ruling also could allow Boy Scouts to reject homosexuals as members, but the ruling is not explicit in that regard.

The court said it neither approved nor disapproved of the Scouts’ perception of homosexuality, but said the First Amendment’s protection for freedom of association means the group cannot be forced “to accept members where such an acceptance would derogate from the association’s express message. — The presence (of a homosexual Scout leader) would, at the very least, force the organization to send a message — that the Boy Scouts accepts homosexual conduct as a legitimate form of behavior.”