Challenging Denver Scout Policy by Robert Tiernan (December 2000)

I live in a nice, quiet residential area in southeast Denver. Two blocks away is a middle school and, next door to that, an elementary school. Both are public schools. Almost every evening I walk my dog in the neighborhood. We have a tradition of sitting on the steps of the elementary school for a brief respite before returning home from our journey.

One evening late last summer I noticed a sign in front of the elementary school. It had an arrow pointing to the main entrance which read “Vineyard Church.” There were several other signs scattered around the neighborhood saying the same thing that had arrows pointing in the direction of the school. All the signs were on public property.

I called the police department to complain and was advised that the signs violated a City Ordinance. I was told to remove them if they bothered me. I did so and took the signs to the local police station. I walked inside, put the signs down, and asked for a form to file a complaint against the Vineyard Church. I was met with resistance from the female officer behind the desk who finally warned me that I would be placed under arrest if I continued to insist on filing a complaint.

In due course, I was put in touch with a police officer who handles community relations. Despite repeated assurances that the Vineyard Church would be told to cease and desist, the same signs continue to appear. Thankfully, though, the church has now changed the location of its services to a High School several miles away so my dog and I don’t have to look at these eyesores anymore when we take our walk.

When I received no satisfaction from the police, I decided to contact the Denver School Board to see whether it would help. One of the things I wanted to know was whether the Vineyard Church paid a rental fee for use of the school. After the usual “Why do you want to know?” exchange, a School Board official sent me a document spelling out the various fees for use of the public schools and school facilities.

I have always objected to the use of public schools for religious purposes. However, in recent years, the courts have made it clear that the equal access laws guarantee that, if a school is opened to noncurricular activities, religious groups may use the schools the same as anyone else.

The School Board’s document containing fees and charges was lengthy and complex. There were several categories including one for nonprofits and churches. A fee schedule set forth the hourly rates plus janitorial services.

As I reviewed the document, I noticed that there was a category which provided for the use of school facilities free of charge. For the most part, this category included groups like the PTA and local government and community groups. But there was one organization that stuck out–the Boy Scouts of America!

I called the School Board and asked why the Boy Scouts were given special treatment over other non-profits. The person with whom I talked wanted to drop the subject like a hot potato. He suggested that I write the President of the School Board, Elaine Berman. I did so and made sure to send a copy of the letter to a friend of mine who writes for the Denver Post.

In the letter I pointed out that the Boy Scouts discriminate on the basis of religion. That is, if a boy refuses to take the Scout oath which includes a statement of allegiance to God, he is not eligible to be a member. Also, shortly before I got involved in this issue, the United States Supreme Court had held that it was not unconstitutional for the Scouts to prohibit gays from becoming members. The court held that the Scouts are a private organization and are, therefore, entitled to set their own membership criteria. This is interesting in view of the fact that the Boy Scouts have a special charter granted by the United States Congress which would seem to say that they are anything but a private organization.

In any event, the Denver Post covered our story. Ms. Berman, the School Board President, was interviewed by the Post and was quoted as saying that the public schools had no right to prohibit the Boy Scouts from using their facilities under the equal access laws. She did not address the issue of the Scouts, unlike most other nonprofits, being able to use the schools free of charge nor did she respond to the criticism of the schools actually chartering Scout troops and allowing school facilities to be used during classroom time to recruit members. My letter was written on September 26 and, as of the date of this writing (November 13), I have not received a reply.

Only days after our story appeared in the Denver Post, a prominent local rabbi, Stephen Foster, turned in all his Boy Scout medals. Foster had been an Eagle Scout, one of scouting’s highest ranks. He said he was turning his badges in to protest the Scouts’ refusal to allow gays and atheists to become members. This story was prominently covered in both Denver dailies and was carried on the local TV and radio news.

Shortly after that an article appeared in the paper to the effect that gay groups intended to pressure public officials not to allow the Boy Scouts to use public facilities to recruit members and to persuade charitable organizations such as the United Fund not to support the Scouts financially. This effort is taking hold. I understand that, recently, a United Fund chapter in Connecticut decided to exclude the Boy Scouts from its giving program. I also understand that the Boy Scouts have initiated a legal action against the United Fund on the theory that it in illegal for them to be excluded from the Fund’s giving.

There seems to be no small amount of hypocrisy here. On the one hand the Scouts argue that they have the right to engage in exclusionary practices because they are a private organization but, on the other, that the United Fund, which is also a private organization, does not.

The Boy Scouts are a very entrenched part of the establishment in this country. The battle to unseat them from their favored position with government promises to be difficult. However, as time passes and as the American public sees the Scouts for the hypocrites they are, public support is bound to wane. It will be interesting to see whether the leadership of the Scouts is intelligent enough to bring the organization into the twenty-first century or whether they will go the way of the dinosaurs which they surely will if they do not change their practices.

Oh, yes–we haven’t forgotten about the signs of the Vineyard Church. That promises to be one of the Denver, Colorado Chapter’s next projects.

Attorney Bob Tiernan is a Foundation member who directs the Foundation’s Denver-area chapter.

Freedom From Religion Foundation