Summary of Boy Scouts of America v. Dale
Relevant Facts: When the Boy Scouts organization discovered that a former Eagle Scout and then assistant scoutmaster James Dale was gay, they revoked his organization membership. Subsequently, Dale sued the Boy Scouts of America in 1992 asserting that the Boy Scouts had violated New Jersey’s statute barring sexual orientation-based discrimination in places of public accommodation. Opposing Dale’s assertion, the Boy Scouts countered that homosexual behavior was inconsistent with the values the organization works to instill in its youth, and that as a private, non-profit organization, it has the ability to revoke membership on such a basis. The New Jersey Superior Court found that the New Jersey statute did not apply in this case because Boy Scouts of America was (and continues to be) a private enterprise not within the public sphere. Additionally, the Superior Court also found that because of its private status in particular, the Boy Scouts could effectively discriminate as a matter of expressing their own First Amendment freedom of expression rights. In this particular case, the expression was that which precluded. including tolerance of a principle that the organization was implicitly founded on stamping out. The New Jersey Appellate Division reversed the lower court’s ruling. Subsequently, the New Jersey Supreme Court affirmed, finding that the public accommodations provision did apply to the Boy Scouts because their recruiting efforts extend far and wide, beyond the scope of what is often done in private clubs. Additionally, the New Jersey Supreme Court held that the Boy Scouts’ freedom of expression rights were not violated by compelling it to reinstate Dale. The matter was brought before the United States Supreme Court.
Issue: The legal question at issue was whether the application of New Jersey’s public accommodations law violated the Boy Scouts’ right to freedom of expression via association by preventing it from barring homosexuals from serving within its ranks.
Holding: The Supreme Court held that yes, the public accommodations law violated the Boy Scouts’ right to freedom of expression via association.
Majority Opinion Reasoning: Writing the majority opinion, Chief Justice Rehnquist stated that, “[t]he Boy Scouts asserts that homosexual conduct is inconsistent with the values it seeks to instill.” Furthermore, Rehnquist asserted that having a gay trooper around boy scouts “would, at the very least, force the organization to send a message, both to the young members and the world, that the Boy Scouts accepts homosexual conduct as a legitimate form of behavior.” The majority held that forcing the organization to do this was effectively tantamount to the government explicitly favoring one manner of behavior (or at least public accommodation) over another in such a manner that private organizations can be compelled to include political expression in which they do not believe or condone.
Dissenting Opinion: Associate Justice Stevens presented the dissenting opinion and argued that the Court erred because it failed to take into account the Boy Scouts’ founding principles of instilling values in young boys and men – the implication being that discrimination was not one of those values. Stevens further argued that the Court interfered in New Jersey’s right to address the issue of discrimination by essentially nullifying their public accommodations law with respect to the Boy Scouts’ ousting of Dale. Stevens took issue more so with principle than law regarding this case, or so it seemed in that he focused on the fallacy in principle of upholding discrimination on constitutional (shield) grounds, although the majority found the issue was actually about freedom of expression for not only so-called more open-minded and accepting individuals and groups, but also arguable bigots, provided they operate within the private sphere.
Conclusion: The Boy Scouts v. Dale case was legally and politically significant. Legally, it demonstrated that while certain forms of discrimination can be prohibited in the public sphere, within the private sphere, organizations, much like individuals, can dictate with whom they associate and which beliefs they will promote or which they will not. One party’s freedom of expression rights cannot trump another’s in the private sphere. Politically, this case was seen as a substantial setback for the gay rights and overall LGBT movement, but a decisive victory for First Amendment activists.