Institute on Religion and Democracy
August 16, 1999
The Boy Scouts must abandon their longtime policy and accept homosexual Scout leaders, the New Jersey Supreme Court has ruled. Not willing to surrender easily, the Boy Scouts have vowed to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. Meanwhile, the case has divided leaders of America's third largest religious denomination.
The agency of the United Methodist Church that oversees its scouting ministries has endorsed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the Boy Scouts. But an official with United Methodism's lobby office on Capitol Hill in Washington argues that the Scouts' are violating the denomination's stance against discrimination based on sexual orientation.
"We believe non-discrimination is the order of the day," Assistant General Secretary Jane Hull Harvey of the United Methodist Board of Church and Society told The Washington Times. "There's no way our church Supreme Court is not going to say [neutrality toward sexual orientation] is the law of the church."
Harvey's agency is the largest church lobby in Washington, with nearly 40 employees who push for left-leaning public policy objectives as ostensible representatives of the church. The Board of Church and Society, with a budget of nearly $4 million, is even lobbying its own denomination to abandon a church law that declares homosexual practice to be "incompatible with Christian teaching."
The Reverend Joseph Harris, who is General Secretary of United Methodist Men, disagrees with Harvey and her board. His agency overseas United Methodist scouting activities, which include over 421,000 Scouts and 11,738 Scouting units. He defends the Scout policy precluding practicing homosexuals and atheists from serving as Scout leaders. Any reversal of the Scout stance would harm the Scouts even more than the church, Harris believes.
A former district superintendent of the United Methodist Church in Oklahoma, Harris subscribes to the historic social conservatism of the black church, from which he emerged. He is in fact a former director of the Board of Church and Society, where he and a few others unsuccessfully attempted to set that agency on a more moderate course on homosexuality and other issues.
United Methodism is, like most mainline churches, torn by debates over sexuality. Like nearly all churches, its official policies uphold heterosexual marriage as the proper context for sexual expression. Polls show most United Methodists support this position.
But much of the permanent church bureaucracy chafes under this policy and actively lobbies for its removal. Harris' General Commission on United Methodist Men, which includes the Methodist bishops of San Antonio and Richmond, is in fact nearly the only national church agency that has publicly defended the church's historic teaching on sexuality.
The public disagreement between two prominent church agencies is likely laying the groundwork for a trial before United Methodism's Judicial Council, which perhaps would coincide with the secular trial that the Boy Scouts will seek before the Supreme Court. Methodism's church court last year upheld the legality of the church's prohibition against clergy conducting same-sex unions. But there is no way to predict how the Judicial Council might apply the church's official opposition against discrimination based on "sexual orientation."
Although unable to overthrow the church teaching on marriage and homosexuality, agencies like the Board of Church and Society have successfully lobbied for church resolutions that endorse "gay rights" in the workplace and in other social institutions. These resolutions place the church in the contradictory situation of refusing to practice what it preaches. For example, the Board of Church and Society actively lobbies for acceptance of homosexuals in the military, even as the United Methodist Church refuses to admit practicing homosexuals into the ordained ministry.
Most legislation that elevates sexual preference to the status of race, ethnicity or gender specifically excludes religious organizations. Such proposed laws have failed in the U.S. Congress but have passed in at least ten states, including New Jersey. The New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that the Boy Scouts were so broad in membership, and are involved in so many partnerships with government agencies such as police and fire departments, that they are the equivalent of a "public accommodation," like a restaurant or a hotel.
Not content to stretch legal definitions of public accommodation so as to strike down the Boy Scout policy, the New Jersey justices claimed the right to define what Scout beliefs actually are. The chief justice dismissed the assertions of the Scouts' lawyers that the words "morally straight" in the Scout oath would necessarily say anything about sexuality. Another justice chastised the Scouts for the "prejudice" reflected in their policy against homosexual Scout leaders.
The New Jersey Supreme Court took slight notice of the constitutional principle of freedom of association that allows private organizations, religious or not, to decide for themselves their own definition of the moral good. They also ignored the friend-of-the-court brief from United Methodist Men and three other church groups, who pointed out that most Scout units are sponsored by churches, whose clergy sometimes appoint the Scout leaders, and most of whose denominations have policies disapproving of homosexual conduct.
So far the New Jersey litigation against the Boy Scouts has showcased both judicial arrogance and the extent to which traditional religious beliefs about sex have been successfully branded by the popular culture as bigotry. But perhaps the case may alert more Americans to the inherent danger of sexual orientation laws.
Sexual practice, unlike the morally neutral identities of gender or race, is a behavior about which every society rightly makes moral judgments. Laws that attempt to ban such moral judgements are not only illogical. They also assault the Constitution's First Amendment by enlisting the coercive powers of the state to impose a social orthodoxy upon private associations.
The Boy Scouts and United Methodist Men should be thanked not only for defending their own policies, but also for defending the freedoms that the First Amendment is supposed to guarantee to all Americans.