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Church agency welcomes high court's focus on Boy Scouts case

1/21/2000 News media contact: Linda Green · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (UMNS) -- The United Methodist Church's men's agency said it welcomes a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to hear a controversial case on whether the Boy Scouts can bar homosexuals from leadership positions.

The Supreme Court said on Jan. 14 that it would render a ruling by July on whether the Boy Scouts of America can exclude homosexuals as troop leaders. The high court will decide if the Boy Scout organization had a constitutional right to oust a troop leader after learning he is homosexual.

"We are pleased that the Supreme Court decided to hear the case. It is critical that there be some definitive decision on the privacy of a nonprofit organization to choose its leadership according to their historical criteria," said the Rev. Joseph Harris, top executive at the United Methodist Commission on United Methodist Men. "This is why we joined the amicus brief."

The Nashville-based commission is one of 13 churchwide agencies, but it does not speak for the denomination. The only body that speaks for the United Methodist Church is the quadrennial General Conference, the denomination's top legislative body.

The commission voted last September to support an appeal to the Supreme Court regarding a New Jersey court ruling against the Boy Scouts of America. The commission had decided in 1998 to join with the Church of the Latter Day Saints in filing an amicus brief to the New Jersey Supreme Court in the case of James Dale vs. the Boy Scouts of America. That court ruled last summer that the Boy Scouts' denial of membership to gays violated state anti-discrimination laws.

Another churchwide agency, the United Methodist Board of Church and Society, affirmed the decision of the New Jersey Supreme Court in October and called upon the Boy Scouts to discontinue this exclusion of gays. Board executives declined to make a statement about the Supreme Court's decision to hear the case.

United Methodist Men have been partners with the Boy Scouts for decades, said Bishop Raymond Owen, who heads the church's San Antonio (Texas) Area and is president of the men's commission.

The filing of the amicus brief and a subsequent appeal "was not about homosexuality but whether the Boy Scouts, as a not-for-profit organization, could choose its own leaders," Owen said. The men's group says that the Boy Scouts should have the right to set its own course without interference from the government.

"We welcome this, and whatever the decision is, we will want to live with the decision of the court," Owen said. "We are people of law as well as faith, and we live by it. That is what the Supreme Court is about, to keep us focused."

The United Methodist Church, through the commission's Office of Scouting Ministries, is the largest charter organization of Boy Scouts of America. Membership in the Scouting organization through local United Methodist churches totals more than 421,000 in 11,738 Cub Scout packs, Boy Scout troops and Venture crews. More than 8,000 United Methodist churches charter at least one Scout unit.

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