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Portland, Ore., schools debate Boy Scouts' recruitment methods

Portland, Ore., schools debate Boy Scouts' recruitment methods

Under pressure from gay and atheist parents, Portland, Ore., school officials are considering a policy that would bar the Boy Scouts of America from recruiting students during school hours. Under the proposal, nonschool groups would be allowed to send literature home with children, but the flier or pamphlet would need to be accompanied with a disclaimer, warning parents that the groups' values may be offensive. "From time to time, you may receive materials from a group that holds values that may offend some of our families," the draft disclaimer says. At a public hearing Wednesday, gay and atheist parents called the policy a step in the right direction but said it falls short of protecting their children from discrimination. They complained that the pamphlets still would be handed out by teachers, lending credibility to the group's message. Boy Scouts officials applauded the district for agreeing to treat all groups equally. "It's not our preferred way to recruit. But for the last year the schools here have limited the Boy Scouts to putting papers on a table where no one picks them up," said Boy Scouts attorney Gene Grant. "Now we will all be allowed to send literature home." The Boy Scout oath requires members to "affirm a duty to God" and calls for scouts to keep themselves "morally straight"--values that gay parents and atheists say are inherently discriminatory. Boy Scout officials said all children and parents are welcome to participate in their organization, as long as they do not advertise or proclaim their sexual orientation or differing religious views. "If they do, they will be excluded," said Grant, who described the Boy Scouts' position as similar to the U.S. military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy. The draft policy comes as educators wait for the Oregon court of appeals' decision on a seven-year legal battle fought by Nancy Powell, a Portland atheist who charges that her son suffered discrimination after being recruited by the Boy Scouts in a Portland elementary school in 1996. In her statement to the board, Powell said anything short of banning the literature in schools altogether is discrimination. "There are self-esteem issues that result from not being allowed to participate with a group that was endorsed, sometimes just by means of a smile or a handout by school officials," she said. "You can't just say you don't support discrimination while continuing to be a part of it by physically handing out materials for groups that discriminate," she told the board. Andrea Meyer, legislative director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon, quoted the expert testimony of a child psychologist, who argued that children take more seriously messages handed out by teachers and others in authority. She urged school board members to consider either mailing the flier directly to parents or else handing them out in sealed envelopes so that they children do not see them. School board member Bobbie Regan, one of the driving forces behind the new policy, said a mailer to parents most likely would cost too much. But she said board members will consider all options, including the possibility of sending the material home in sealed envelopes, when they discuss the issue next year. Former scout leaders and other community members argued that Boy Scouts and other groups provide enriching activities for their children. A volunteer youth basketball coach said the policy will discourage children from signing up for the sport and may also discourage volunteers. "Don't make it harder--or virtually impossible--for willing members of the community to help kids," he said. "What one person sees as enrichment, others see as discrimination," countered gay father Steve Wagenhoffer, whose son came home with Boy Scouts literature last year. It was his complaint that triggered the current revised policy.

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