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Poloncarz & Winkler v. BSA


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     In a matter related to the Richardson case, the ACLU, which represented Keith Richardson, issued a statement on July 30, 1996, charging that the City of Chicago, the Chicago Board of Education, the FBI, Commonwealth Edison, and other government and private organizations were participating in illegal discrimination by operating BSA units. The ACLU demanded that these organizations seek to change either the BSA's discriminatory practices or stop chartering BSA units.
     The ACLU contacted several municipal and private agencies by mail to alert them that their operation of BSA units violated the city's Human Rights Ordinance and other laws prohibiting discrimination.
     Both public and private agencies operating BSA programs thus illegally discriminate by limiting their services to people by excluding individuals based on their sexual orientation. This is in direct violation of laws, including the Chicago Human Rights Ordinance, which prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation.
     "It is ironic that the City of Chicago, which took a strong stance against discrimination based on sexual orientation when it passed Chicago's Human Rights Ordinance, is actively engaged in such discrimination itself," noted ACLU of Illinois Gay and Lesbian Rights Project Director Roger Leishman. "We are asking the city to act consistently with its own policies, and to obey its own laws, by disavowing the Scouts' anti-gay practices."
     The City of Chicago and its various agencies operate numerous Cub Scout packs, Boy Scout troops, and Explorer posts. The agencies involved included the Chicago Police and Fire Departments, the Chicago Housing Authority, the city's Corporation Counsel, and the Chicago Board of Education. Other operators include the Cook County State's Attorney's Office and the US Customs Service, as well as private agencies such as the Chicago and Cook County Bar Associations, Northwestern Memorial Hospital, and the LaSalle Banks.

     On April 10, 1997, the ACLU filed suit in federal court challenging the City of Chicago's operation of BSA units. The suit, Winkler v. City of Chicago was filed on behalf of Eugene Winkler and Kevin Poloncarz.
     Winkler is a Methodist minister who objected to the city's endorsement of religion. Poloncarz is a gay agnostic who wished to volunteer with the city's Law Department's Legal Explorer Post. He objected to the exclusion of homosexuals from the City's scouting programs as well as the requirement that participants make a pledge that acknowledges God.
     Fortunately, Poloncarz had been able to serve as an adult volunteer in another Legal Explorer program, operated by the Chicago Bar Association, where he and other law students and lawyers taught Chicago youth about their profession. The ACLU believed that Poloncarz was the only openly gay man serving as a volunteer scout leader after challenging BSA's policies.
     "The City of Chicago should not be in the business of discriminating," said Roger Leishman, Director of the ACLU's Gay & Lesbian Rights Project. "Regardless of the policies chosen by the Boy Scouts, the City cannot adopt discriminatory policies in City programs."
     The ACLU asked that the Court order the City to stop excluding participants from City-sponsored scouting programs based on religious beliefs and sexual orientation, and to stop including a religious element in the programs.  

     In a binding settlement agreement entered in federal court on February 4, 1998, the city of Chicago formally ended all support for BSA programs as long as the Boy Scouts of America continue to discriminate on the basis of religious belief and sexual orientation.
     "All Chicago citizens benefit from the city's decision to drop its support for scouting programs rather than attempt to defend BSA's discriminatory policies," said Roger Leishman. "Hopefully, other state and local government entities providing support for BSA will take a cue from Chicago's action and end their sponsorship of these discriminatory programs."

     In response to the settlement, on February 12, 1998, BSA announced a radical change to its 63-year old Explorer program. As of August 1, 1998, all career-oriented Explorer programs (like those formerly operated by Chicago and Chuck Merino's Law Enforcement Post) will no longer be subject to membership policies that discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation and religious belief. Nevertheless, the BSA's discriminatory policies will continue to apply to the other "traditional Scouting programs," including some operated by federal, state, and local government entities.

     While the city of Chicago and the Chicago Board of Education settled with the ACLU, the ACLU continued it's lawsuit against the federal defendants - the Department of Defense and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. For more information on the status of this case, click here.
 

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