Actions

Boy Scouts of America v. Dale

From

Significance: Emphasizing that private organizations have the rights of free expression and free association under the First Amendment, the Supreme Court held that government could not force the Boy Scouts to accept openly gay adults to work with the group.


After enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, several state legislatures enacted antidiscrimination statutes that went farther than federal law in two ways: first, they defined public accommodations more broadly, and secondly, they increasingly outlawed discrimination based on sexual orientation. In Roberts v. United States Jaycees (1984), the Supreme Court held that these state laws were binding on some private organizations, but it also acknowledged that organizations committed to particular points of view have freedoms of expression and association that trump antidiscrimination laws. When officials of the Boy Scouts of New Jersey discovered that assistant scoutmaster James Dale was openly gay and a member of a gay rights organization, they revoked his membership. In 1992, Dale brought a lawsuit under a New Jersey law prohibiting discrimination against gays or lesbians in places of public accommodations. Although Dale lost in the trial court, the state appellate court agreed with his claim for two reasons. First, the court held that the public accommodations law applied to the organization because of its broad-based membership its connection to public agencies. Secondly, it observed that the Boy Scouts’ literature did not explicitly mention any antigay point of view, from which they concluded that Dale's inclusion would not significantly interfere with the organization's ability to carry out its mission. New Jersey's supreme court affirmed the ruling. At the U.S. Supreme Court, however, the justices overturned the ruling by a margin of five to four. Speaking for the majority, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist reaffirmed that civil rights laws may not deprive persons of their constitutional rights of “expressive association.” To require the Scouts to accept a gay troop leader, in effect, would force the organization to convey a message that “is inconsistent with the values it seeks to instill.” The ruling did not break any new ground but it clarified the circumstances in which antidiscrimination laws may be applied to private organizations. The decisions was controversial, but opponents usually directed their anger at the Boy Scouts rather than the Supreme Court.