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Timing important for Utah gay issues

Attorney indicates Scout ruling may alter state's image

Published: Sunday, Nov. 5 2000 12:00 a.m. MST

Friends and families of gays and lesbians should campaign for the rights of their loved ones, Evan Wolfson urged Thursday night.

Wolfson argued before the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of James Dale against the Boy Scouts of America last spring. The court ultimately ruled that BSA, as a private organization, is within its rights to exclude gays.

Wolfson, representing the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund in New York, said time is of the essence in Utah because of the 2002 Winter Olympics. According to Wolfson, the Olympics will allow Utah to show if it is tolerant of all lifestyles or tolerant only of some lifestyles.

"It won't all be over by the time the Olympics come around, but you can transform the face of Utah," Wolfson said.

Wolfson spoke at the quarterly forum of Family Fellowship, a local group that offers support and education to families of gays and lesbians, at the University of Utah.

Gary Watts, the group's co-chairman, told the audience Family Fellowship was not going to take the lead in any kind of gay civil rights movement, "but certainly, as individuals, we can be active."

To illustrate how people can be active in promoting the rights of gay people, Wolfson talked about the litigation against the Boy Scouts and society's perceptions of homosexuals.

Ten years ago, Dale, then 20, was expelled from the Boy Scouts after having been quoted in a local newspaper article about issues relating to gay youth. The litigation began.

Wolfson argued Dale had been discriminated against because of his sexual orientation. BSA maintained it was a private organization and had the right to select membership.

The case went through the courts, and in January the New Jersey Supreme Court unanimously decided BSA was a "public accommodation" and had to adhere to civil rights laws.

BSA appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. In June, five of the nine justices decided BSA had the right to choose its membership.

Despite the defeat, Wolfson said it was an "honor" to argue before the Supreme Court.

When he began working on the case, he said the press and many of his colleagues thought it "was going to be difficult to win."

Through the case, the country was forced to acknowledge that "gay kids exist," he said.

"To me, the Boy Scout case illustrates the power of seizing the vocabulary," Wolfson said.

He also said the justices' decision is not the last word. "American voices are picking up where they left off."

Wolfson said tolerance of gay people is increasing. He said if BSA continues its discriminatory practices, the group will become marginalized.

"They (kids and their parents) will channel their support to the programs that don't discriminate," Wolfson said.

Gavin Grooms, national director of Save Our Scouts, an organization dedicated to preserving Boy Scouts "in its present form," said he disagrees. His organization began circulating a petition Sept. 1, and 55,000 people have signed it. Two other petitions have gathered 150,000 signatures of people who say they support the Supreme Court's decision.


E-mail: lhancock@desnews.com

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