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Supreme Court issues decisions on Scouts, abortion


WASHINGTON (UMNS) - On the final day of its session, the U.S. Supreme Court announced two decisions on issues that United Methodists have been debating.

On June 28, the court agreed with the Boy Scouts of America that the organization could bar homosexuals from leadership positions, a stance supported by one United Methodist churchwide agency and opposed by another.

On the same day, the court struck down a Nebraska law prohibiting so-called "partial birth abortions" roughly six weeks after the United Methodist Church's top legislative assembly amended its position on abortion to oppose the rarely used procedure.

The majority opinion of the court's 5-4 decision in the Stenberg v. Carhart case was based on constitutional grounds. It said the Nebraska law violated a woman's constitutional rights by imposing an undue burden on her decision to end her pregnancy. The stricken law did not provide for an exception for the health of the mother.

The nearly 1,000 delegates at the United Methodist General Conference on May 12 in Cleveland passed a resolution against the dilation and extraction form of late-term abortion by a vote of 622-275. While the new church position provides an exception for the physical life of the mother, it does not make provision for the mother's health.

Relative to the homosexuality issue, the Commission on United Methodist Men has said it joins with the Boy Scouts of America in welcoming the decision of the court in the case called Boy Scouts of America v. Dale.

James Dale, a former Eagle Scout, had become an assistant scoutmaster at the age of 18. He accepted his homosexuality about a year later. When he was quoted in a newspaper story subsequently about the difficulty he had in accepting his homosexuality, the Monmouth (N.J.) Council of the Boy Scouts took away his registration.

Dale sued under a New Jersey civil rights law. In the years of court battles that followed, he lost the first decision in 1995, but in 1999 the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled unanimously in his favor. The Boy Scouts appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. That court's 5-4 ruling agreed with the Scouts' legal position that forcing the organization to accept homosexual troop leaders would violate the group's constitutional rights to free expression and free association.

"It is important to the Boy Scouts of America and our church that private organizations retain the right to define their leadership criteria," said the Commission on United Methodist Men, which had signed an "amicus" or "friend of the court" brief.

The denomination's Board of Church and Society had also signed such a brief, taking the other side of the question. Both church agencies were signing with the several other faith groups. The board's co-signers were "traditional faith partners" such as organizations within the United Church of Christ, Reform Judaism and the Episcopal Church. The commission position was the same as that of with other religious groups, including the Mormons, Catholics and Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod.

The board said the Boy Scout policy of denying membership based entirely on sexual orientation conflicts with the Social Principles of the denomination, which are established by the church's General Conference, the only body authorized to speak for the church.

"The Social Principles - in irreconcilable opposition to the "moral beliefs" alleged to govern the Boy Scouts -- decree 'that all persons regardless of age, gender, national status, or sexual orientation, are entitled to have their human and civil rights ensured,'" said the Rev. Thom White Wolf Fassett, top staff executive of the board, citing Paragraph 65G of the document.

He also cited Paragraph 66, which says: "Certain basic human rights and civil liberties are due all persons. We are committed to supporting those rights and liberties for homosexual persons."

In its statement, the Commission on United Methodist Men also referred indirectly to Paragraph 65G when it said, "We consider all persons to be of sacred worth." It went on to add "and we will continue to work with the BSA in its leadership needs."

The Rev. Joseph Harris, top staff executive of the commission, said the court's decision enables the United Methodist Men to move forward with helping shape Boy Scout criteria for future leadership.

"We do believe all persons are of sacred worth. We will work in the Scouting organization to raise issues related to inclusiveness and leadership across the board," he said. Harris said the commission had joined the case "because secular courts should not be determining the leadership needs of private organizations."

If changes in policy are needed in private organizations, Harris said, they should come from within "and not from some outside secular imposition."

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