University Press of Kansas Logo

Judging the Boy Scouts of America

Gay Rights, Freedom of Association, and the Dale Case

Richard J. Ellis

May 2014
272 pages, 5-1⁄2 x 8-1⁄2
Landmark Law Cases and American Society
Cloth ISBN 978-0-7006-1950-4, $34.95
Paper ISBN 978-0-7006-1951-1, $17.95
Ebook ISBN 978-0-7006-1984-9, $17.95

book cover imageAs Americans, we cherish the freedom to associate. However, with the freedom to associate comes the right to exclude those who do not share our values and goals. What happens when the freedom of association collides with the equally cherished principle that every individual should be free from invidious discrimination? This is precisely the question posed in Boy Scouts of America v. James Dale, a lawsuit that made its way through the courts over the course of a decade, culminating in 2000 with a landmark ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court. In Judging the Boy Scouts of America, Richard J. Ellis tells the fascinating story of the Dale case, placing it in the context of legal principles and precedents, Scouts’ policies, gay rights, and the “culture wars” in American politics.

The story begins with James Dale, a nineteen-year old Eagle Scout and assistant scoutmaster in New Jersey, who came out as a gay man in the summer of 1990. The Boy Scouts, citing their policy that denied membership to “avowed homosexuals,” promptly terminated Dale’s membership. Homosexuality, the Boy Scout leadership insisted, violated the Scouts’ pledge to be “morally straight.” With the aid of the Lambda Legal Defense Fund, Dale sued for discrimination.

Ellis tracks the case from its initial filing in New Jersey through the final decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in favor of the Scouts. In addition to examining the legal issues at stake, including the effect of the Supreme Court’s ruling on the law of free association, Ellis also describes Dale’s personal journey and its intersection with an evolving gay rights movement. Throughout he seeks to understand the puzzle of why the Boy Scouts would adopt and adhere to a policy that jeopardized the
organization’s iconic place in American culture—and, finally, explores how legal challenges and cultural changes contributed to the Scouts’ historic policy reversal in May 2013 that ended the organization’s ban on gay youth (though not gay adults).

“With the Boy Scouts of America v. James Dale case, the Constitution becomes a Procrustean bed—in fact, a whole room of them. Ellis' account is riveting.”—Karen Orren, Professor of Political Science at UCLA

“Richard Ellis has produced a thoroughly compelling and readable account of a century’s worth of efforts to hold the Boy Scouts to their own standards for fairness, loyalty and justice. It's the most comprehensive and accurate narrative of early legal actions against the Scouts I’ve ever seen; I learned things I didn't know about my own lawsuit.”—Tim Curran, journalist and plaintiff, Curran v Mt. Diablo Council, 1981

“I knew the broad outline of the Dale case and the cultural issues it raised, but Ellis's carefully researched book opens up layers of complexity and subtlety that show me even more about the dramatic intersection of lives, ideas, laws, and institutions involved with landmark court decisions like Dale. I am grateful that so skilled an historian and writer as Ellis has told this story-behind-the-story.”—Jay Mechling, author of On My Honor: Boy Scouts and the Making of American Youth

RICHARD J. ELLIS is Mark O. Hatfield Professor of Politics at Willamette University. He is the author of many books including Presidential Travel: The Journey from George Washington to George Bush and To the Flag: The Unlikely History of the Pledge of Allegiance, both published by Kansas.

Facebook button