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Venture-0308

Sebastopol Scouts' charter pulled over anti-bias policy: Boy Scouts of America says no leeway
in ban against gays


By GUY KOVNER
The Press Democrat
Thursday, August 14, 2003

A Sebastopol troop has lost its Boy Scouts of America charter for refusing to drop an anti-discrimination statement that Scouting officials say conflicts with the organization's national policy banning homosexuals.

Bev Buswell, led adviser to the 16-member Venture Crew 488, said her application for charter renewal was denied because it included a statement she wrote pledging the crew would not discriminate on the basis of race, religion, sexual orientation and other factors.

Local and national Scouting officials say there is no leeway in adhering to the 93-year-old organization's membership standards.

"The policies of the Boy Scouts of America are not pick and choose," said Ralph Voelker, who takes over Friday as executive of the Redwood Empire Boy Scout Council, covering Sonoma, Mendocino, Humboldt and del Norte counties.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June 2000 that the 3.3 million-youth member Boy Scouts, as a private organization, has the right to ban gay members and leaders.

On its Web site, the Boy Scouts of America states: "We believe an avowed homosexual is not a role model for the values espoused in the Scout Oath and Law."

The Scout Oath, including a commitment to stay "physically strong, mentally awake and morally straight," often is cited as justification for prohibiting gay Scouts and leaders.

Critics, including Buswell, say Scouting's opposition to homosexuality is dictated by conservative national leadership and by churches that sponsor more than half of Scout troops and packs.

"I feel like they stole Scouting," she said.

Involved in Scouting since age 16, Buswell said she was troubled by the ouster of gay Scout leaders and Scouting critics, including Dave Rice of Petaluma, a 59-year Scouting veteran removed as an assistant Scoutmaster in 1998.

Buswell said she drafted her first anti-discrimination statement three years ago and included it in her charter renewal application in December, knowing it might prompt the crew's termination

"I actually felt it was my Scout duty," Buswell said.  "I feel strongly that a terrible injustice is being done with this policy."

Buswell said she told crew members about the statement but did not ask for their opinions.  "I've been pretty careful not to involve the youth," she said.

Mariana Thorn, a former Crew 488 member, said she was dismayed by the fate of the group, which she said was absolutely the highlight of my high school life."

But Thorn, an Analy High School graduate and now a junior at UC Santa Cruz, said she agrees with Buswell's protest.  "A gay person can be a perfectly good role model." she said.

The anti-discrimination statement was approved by a parent committee that helps run Crew 488, said Merryl Mendelson of Sebastopol, the committee's chairwoman.

Mendelson said Scouting was "very close-minded" about prohibiting homosexuals.  "It needs to be open to everybody," she said.

But Voelker said any Scout unit or regional council would risk loss of its charter by adopting an anti-discrimination statement, as Buswell proposed to the Redwood Empire Council.

"We would no longer exist as an organization," he said.

In June, Roy L. Williams, nation Scout executive, issued a memo stating that no local council "is permitted to depart from BSA membership policies."

Williams said he was "unaware of any council that is not in compliance."

Buswell, 44, a Sebastopol real estate broker, said a meeting last month with a Scouting official failed to find common ground.  "We agreed to differ," she said.

Buswell, a veteran Scouting leader, said 65 teen-agers and 21 adult leaders had participated in Crew 488 since 1996.  The crew, which engages in such high-adventure as backpacking, caving, whitewater rafting, surfing and snow camping, is nw in limbo because it lost the insurance provided by the Boy Scouts.

Buswell said she hopes to revive the crew through affiliation with the YMCA, Camp Fire, West County Community Services or some other organization.

Venturing, a Boy Scouts of America youth development program for men and women ages 14 to 20, has 315,296 members, nearly 10 percent of Scouting's total youth membership.

Buswell, a former Boy Scout troop leader, joined Crew 488 when her daughter, Alyssa, turned 14.  "We turn it up a notch," she said, referring to the crew's involvement in rugged outdoor activities.

"You learn survival and self-reliance," she sad.

Laurie Stoumen, a Sebastopol landscaper whose daughter was in Crew 488 two years ago, said she supports Buswell's stand.

"I don't believe in discriminating against anybody," said Stoumen, whose deceased brother was gay.  "The whole thing is very personal to me."

To protest Crew 488's loss of charter, Buswell and others said they will stage a protest Aug. 21 in front of the Redwood Empire Council's office.

She holds little hope of a resolution, but Buswell said that in training Scouts for citizenship merit badges she advocated "standing up for what you believe in."

The current Scouting controversy is not the first in Sonoma County.

Steven Cozza, 18, a Petaluma Eagle Scout and now a world-class junior bicyclist, launched a national protest against Scouting's ban on gays in December 1997.  Cozza still attends rallies when his bicycle training schedule permits, and his petition to change the policy has more than 90,000 signatures, said his father, Scott Cozza.

Scouting groups can maintain a no-discrimination policy only if they keep quiet about it, said Scott Cozza, who was ousted as a Petaluma assistant Scoutmaster in 1998.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or gkovner@pressdemocrat.com.

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