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Scouts must pack their tents

The Supreme Court ruled in their favor, but membership issues still roil the Scouts.

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Not far from the San Diego Zoo, generations of Boy Scouts have pitched their tents in a patch of urban paradise.

Sure, it's hard to ignore the whir of jet airplanes flying over Balboa Park or the cars whizzing by on the freeway behind the eucalyptus trees. Few though were complaining about such intrusions, especially given the $1-a-year lease from the city that granted the Boy Scouts exclusive use of the 15-acre site.

But that special access may soon end. This month, the city settled a lawsuit with the ACLU, which challenged granting preferential access to the the Boy Scouts because of their policy of barring both homosexuals and atheists from membership.

This settlement is just one sign that the Boy Scouts' policy of exclusion remains contentious both inside and outside the organization four years after the US Supreme Court upheld its right to discriminate.

ACLU chapters and gay rights groups are challenging similar decades-old deals around the country that give Boy Scouts exclusive use of public facilities at little or no cost. Local charities in some communities have stopped donating money. And membership is down nationwide, though the Scouts and their detractors can't agree whether the controversy or a sour economy is to blame.

Boy Scout leaders say the organization remains as strong - and relevant - as ever. But by adhering firmly to their membership policies, civil rights activists argue the Boy Scouts risk losing their hallowed place in American society as the providers of a youthful rite of passage for all.

"They've aligned themselves with a set of values not shared with most Americans any more," says Matt Coles, director of the ACLU's National Lesbian and Gay Rights Project in New York. "The longer and harder they hold to them the more irrelevant they become."

To be sure, the Boy Scouts would have suffered no matter how the Supreme Court ruled, says Jay Mechling, author of "On My Honor: Boy Scouts and the Making of American Youth."

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