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Something constructive can come of the quandary

By Mayor Shirley Dean
Thursday August 16, 2001

I sometimes claim I was seven feet tall before I became mayor of Berkeley but got so short – under five feet – from everybody beating on me! Nothing brought that home to me more than the recent episode involving the Boy Scouts. In response, I am determined to carve something constructive out of the embarrassing happenings of last week. 

Last week was to be routine starting with greeting visitors from our sister city, Sakai. Instead, Berkeley became the center of an international storm of controversy. By now, you know the story. Thirty-eight Japanese boy and girl scouts accompanied by American Boy and Girl Scouts who were hosting the visitors were to meet with me in the Civic Center Building. Councilmember Kriss Worthington challenged the legality of the meeting, my presence as mayor at the meeting, and holding the meeting on public property. Councilmember Worthington said that because of their discriminatory policies, he didn’t want it to appear in any way that the city of Berkeley supported the Boy Scouts, and suggested that I should separate the group and meet only with the Girl Scouts.  

Boy Scouts of America have a national policy prohibiting membership to gays, but neither the Girl Scouts nor the scouts in Japan have such a policy. Local Boy Scout leaders and members have publicly stated their disagreement with the BSA national discrimination policy even though this has subjected them to strong criticism from others in scouting. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that the BSA, as a private organization, can legally hold such a policy. Change must come from within, but while scout councils around the country, including San Diego and recently Boston, are joining the movement for change, it hasn’t been enough – yet. 

While our city attorney ruled that the original meeting as planned was entirely legal since no city funds were being used, I re-scheduled it to a private location because I didn’t want the Japanese children to be caught in the cross fire of the controversy over an American Boy Scout policy. Some say I should have pushed ahead with the meeting, including using the police and arresting anyone who protested, regardless of the consequences. I don’t think that would have been very wise in the face of the inevitable protest that would have confronted non-English speaking children visiting this country. My first responsibility was to protect the visiting foreign children whose parents were thousands of miles away. I also felt a duty to the Berkeley Boy Scouts and their parents who should be encouraged for the stand they have taken. Once in the middle of a protest, you can’t put the genie back into the bottle, so better safe than sorry, I re-scheduled the meeting. Ironically, because I acted to remove the children from the controversy, the Chronicle wrote an editorial criticizing me for not "leaving the kids out of it." You figure it out!  

The bright note is that I had my meeting, as mayor of Berkeley, with our Japanese visitors and all of us had a wonderful time – full of joy and friendship. Yes, American Boy and Girl Scouts were present with their families. Our meeting was held in El Sobrante, not because I or the scouts didn’t want it in Berkeley, but because the logistics of obtaining a hall on short notice that could accommodate 300 for potluck dinner didn’t work out for Berkeley. The Japanese leaders expressed their great appreciation for protecting the children, and I am pleased that the local Girl Scout organization also expressed its support for my position. Best of all was being with the many fine young people who had shared the previous week with one another.  

The criticism this subject has stirred up has caused embarrassment to our tolerant and caring community. Now we need to get down to the hard business of holding a constructive discussion of what we are going to do to change things. Scouting can provide experiences for children that teach them about the environment, foster teamwork, instill life-long values, and create lasting friendships. Scouting is important for both girls and boys. We need to end the damaging discrimination policies of the BSA. I have made a firm commitment to meet in September with representatives from our local Boy and Girl Scout organizations to develop a strategy that will contribute to this goal.