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Jewish Journal

Scout’s Honor

by Rob Eshman

January 25, 2001 | 7:00 pm

Marvin Himlin believes with all his heart that the Boy Scouts of America and the United States Supreme Court did right by keeping avowed homosexuals from leadership positions in the Scouts. "Young kids coming into their sexuality are too impressionable, and I don't think kids need to be introduced to that."

By "that" he means homosexuality. Himlin, a Lancaster-area real estate broker, has been deeply involved in the local Scouting movement since the mid-1980s: chair of Troops 599 and 76, and a member of the properties committee and the Jewish committee.

Nationwide, Jewish organizations sponsor 277 of 124,000 troops. Locally, a lot of Jewish children and their parents participate as members and leaders, and synagogues serve as sponsors and meeting places of local Scout troops. (When I was a scout in Encino, Troop 131 had so many Jewish kids, our patrol abandoned the pretense of adopting some noble totemic moniker like Raccoon, Bobcat or Hawk. We called ourselves the Bagel Patrol.)

Rabbi Alan Henkin, regional director of the Pacific Southwest Council of the Reform movement's Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC), estimates that of some 80 Reform congregations in Los Angeles, upwards of 15 sponsor or host a Scout troop. And therein lies the dilemma.

Six months after a Supreme Court decision upheld the Boy Scouts' right to exclude members and leaders on the basis of sexual orientation, the Central Conference of American Rabbis' and the UAHC's Joint Commission on Social Action recommended that congregations stop sponsoring or housing Scout troops and packs.

The court, like the California Supreme Court before it, ruled that the Boy Scouts of America is not a "public accommodation," where discrimination is banned, but a private group that under the First Amendment's freedom of association provision can exclude members who violate the organization's "expressive message."

The legal definitions here are oh-so-squishy. The high court has traditionally held that sexual orientation is not an inevitable characteristic like race or religion, says attorney Doug Mirell. But that opinion rests more on ideology than fact. I asked Mirell what would happen if I were to start a religion with a sacrament of homosexuality. Wouldn't banning its members from the Scouts be an obvious infringement of religious liberties? (I can hardly wait for that episode of "The West Wing.")

"Interesting," said Mirell, who is president of the Progressive Jewish Alliance, which opposes the Scouts' policy. "But I'm sure this particular court would find its way around that, too."

Meanwhile, the Reform policy and the Boy Scouts decision have upset what was, by all accounts, a perfectly happy relationship between temples and scouting. "I'm very grateful to the parents for having brought Scouting to the kids," says Rabbi John Rosove of Temple Israel of Hollywood. The temple's day school parents association has sponsored a Cub Scout pack for the past five years. Along with the knot-tying and day hikes, the group has, among other good works, participated as a group in AIDS Walk L.A.

All the parents, say Rosove, oppose the Scouts' anti-gay policy, but they are deeply divided on whether to sever their ties to the organization or change it from the inside.

In severing, they'd be following the lead of the cities of Los Angeles and Chicago, Chase Manhattan, Levi Strauss, the New York City and San Diego public schools, and the United Way. Even the Episcopal Church has harshly criticized the Boy Scouts. The Los Angeles Police Commission is looking into discontinuing the Explorer program that pairs scouts with officers.

Whether to abide by the Reform committee's recommendations is a decision that rests with individual temples. Board members and rabbis are faced with the tough choice. On the one hand, many admire the work of the Boy Scouts. Many were scouts or had their sons in the movement. You can almost hear the heartbreak in their voices.

"I was in Troop 51 at the Horace Mann School," said Rabbi Jerrold Goldstein, associate director of the UAHC office here. "I was a senior patrol leader in the Order of the Arrow. It's a hundred thousand times better than hanging around the mall."

Now Goldstein must oppose the movement he loves. "It's shocking to me that I'm in a position to say, 'Don't join the Boy Scouts; don't sponsor the Boy Scouts.' I'm uncomfortable saying this, but it's terrible they tainted the movement with this."

Last summer, even before its movement's recommendation, Temple Ahavat Shalom in Northridge told its Scout pack that temple facilities were no longer available. Other synagogues have yet to decide. When they do, rabbis may well come up against more conservative boards (or vice versa), who in some cases will have to take on temple brotherhoods, which often act as sponsors for the Scouts. In Chicago, the result has been a small firestorm. Here, local synagogues are just gearing up for battle.

Last weekend, Temple Israel's parking lot became a front in this war. Some Scout parents passed around a petition after Shabbat services and after Hebrew school opposing the temple's move to "expel" -- their word -- the Scouts. Other parents argued that language was inflammatory. "It's about taking a moral, principled decision about an immoral position," Rosove told The Journal.

The temple board will vote on the matter Feb. 21. Before that, Rosove has asked to speak to Scout parents and the boys themselves. "We'd like them to vote on it and bring their decision to the board, so every one has a say," he said. Around the country, some congregations have opted to write a new, nondiscriminatory charter for their Scout troops. But Rosove and others who decry the Scout practice also oppose what they see as a half-measure. "By association we'll be seen as supporting the decision," Rosove said.

Goldstein also doesn't see much room for compromise. "Prejudice against a class of people is something we won't tolerate," he says. "I hate to make it a litmus test, but I guess it really is."

But the Scouts are standing fast. Scout leaders like Himlin say they stand for morality, and they believe homosexuality is immoral. He compares the Boy Scouts' decision to the same one taken by the U.S. military: don't ask, don't tell. "If you are homosexual, you shouldn't flaunt it," he says. "What they're saying is, don't be an activist."

The problem is that the military's attempt at "don't ask, don't tell" has been an abject failure. Under it, there have been hundreds of violations (563 in 1997 alone) and a 38 percent increase in physical and verbal harassment of gay service members. Much more successful has been the Israeli military's policy of inclusion.

The deeper problem, of course, is that the policy will force scouts to act contrary to what scouts like me learned in the movement. The days of the gay scout leader are not over -- but "Don't ask, don't tell" will compel them to live a lie. By forcing them to hide who they are, not just from their scouts but from their friends and family, the Boy Scouts compels them to violate their oath to be truthful and robs them of the honor and respect that Scouting asks us to accord to all people. That perhaps is why rabbis like Rosove have opted to sever their temple's ties to the Scouts. "All I have to do," Rosove says, "is substitute 'gay' for 'Jew' or 'Black,' and the decision is very clear to me."

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