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Bill gives Scouts use of government space

Mike Madden Gannett News Service

WASHINGTON – Congress is coming to the Boy Scouts’ aid.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced legislation Wednesday that would guarantee the Boy Scouts of America can use government facilities for gatherings, meetings and events despite a series of recent lawsuits challenging the Scouts over their policies excluding openly gay leaders and members who won’t swear an oath that they believe in God.

The Supreme Court has ruled that the Scouts can set their own membership rules, but the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups have sought to block the Scouts from using government facilities, saying government shouldn’t be supporting an organization critics believe discriminates. The Pentagon last year settled one such lawsuit by telling military bases around the world not to become direct sponsors of Boy Scout troops or Cub Scout dens.

If the “Support Our Scouts Act” becomes law, though, the federal government would be obliged to support the Scouts as fervently in the future as it has for 95 years, and state and local governments would be required to give Scouts access to their facilities if they make them available to other groups.

“(The lawsuits have) had a chilling effect on the government in its support to the Scouts,” said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican who carried Boy Scout hats and a Scouting manual as he spoke about the legislation. “(The legislation) addresses these issues head-on by removing any doubt that federal agencies may welcome Scouts to hold meetings and go camping on federal property.”

More than 3.2 million boys ages 8 through 17 were Cub Scouts or Boy Scouts in 2003, the last year records were available. The organization’s leaders say they try to instill moral values and respect for community through group activities like camping and earning merit badges in areas ranging from “atomic energy” and “bugling” to “shotgun shooting” and “wilderness survival.”

“If you talk to a man my age who was a Cub Scout, and you ask him who his den mother was 30 or 40 years ago, by and large they know, they remember,” said Gregg Shields, a spokesman for the BSA. “You ask him who his fourth-grade teacher was and they go, ‘I don’t know.’ “

But critics say the organization’s emphasis on religious beliefs and its exclusion of openly gay Scoutmasters means it shouldn’t get help from government to put on its programs. ACLU officials did not return a call for comment on the legislation, but the group’s chapters are involved in lawsuits against the Boy Scouts from San Diego to Connecticut.

Other Senate co-sponsors include Tennessee Republican Lamar Alexander, Kentucky Republican Jim Bunning, Montana Republican Conrad Burns, Idaho Republican Larry Craig, Nevada Republican John Ensign, Florida Democrat Bill Nelson and Oregon Republican Gordon Smith.

“As an Eagle Scout growing up, I can say for my Scouting experience it was probably one of the most important experiences of my youth and continues to be important to me today,” said Sen. Ben Nelson, a Democrat from Nebraska.

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