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Boy Scouts on the Verge of Losing California Tax Breaks

| September 3, 2013
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Beginning next year, the Boy Scouts of America will allow openly gay youth to join as members. But the Scouts’ policy change doesn’t go far enough for Democratic lawmakers in California. They’re on the verge of passing a bill that would strip tax breaks for the Boy Scouts and any other group that discriminates against gay, lesbian or transgender members.

(Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP/Getty Images)

(Photo by Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP/Getty Images)

The measure would be the latest in a long line of California bills strengthening gay rights. It has cleared the Senate and three Assembly committees, and now awaits a final Assembly vote.

Ask 17-year-old Christopher Tennant what his favorite Boy Scouts experience is, and he’ll tell you about the 91-mile backpacking trip his troop took through New Mexico last year. The scouts got a chance to cook, shoot rifles and even climb up tall poles using ropes. “I was pretty terrified going into that,” Tennant said, remembering the experience. “I wasn’t sure if I was going to do it, as the rest of my troop was lining up. But I did it. I conquered my fear. And it was truly an amazing experience.”Chris’ dad, Steve, went on the 2012 trip, too. It motivated him to take over one of the positions running Troop 57 in Moraga, in Contra Costa County.  “I was like, wow, more boys deserve this opportunity. I could see the impact it had on them. It was transformational for me.”

But a week after Tennant became one of the troop’s committee chairs, a nearby Scout troop denied 17-year-old Ryan Andresen Scouting’s highest honor, the Eagle badge, and then kicked him out of the organization. Its reason: Ryan is gay.

“I found out about it a few days later,” said Tennant. “And wondered for myself, did I join the wrong group here? Because I can’t imagine being a part of a group that would do that to a boy. Especially a group that’s about helping turn boys into leaders.”

Ryan Andresen’s ouster made national news. The incident and its backlash helped push the organization to change its rules and allow gay youth to be members. But the national Scout policy still bars gay and lesbian leaders, affecting California troops that serve about 180,000 youths.

New Policy Not Enough For Lara

State Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Long Beach) said the new policy is, in his opinion, “based on this homophobic sentiment that somehow you’re an LGBT adult and somehow you pose a threat to children all of the sudden.”

That’s why Lara pushed forward with SB 323, which strips away nonprofit sales and use of tax breaks for the Boy Scouts and any other youth group that discriminates against gays, lesbians and transgender members. Legislative staffers estimate the bill would cost California Boy Scout groups up to $250,000 in additional taxes. It would not, however, affect write-off eligibility for donations to Scout groups.

The Tennants both support the measure, even though they clearly love and support Scouting. The same goes for another Contra Costa County scoutmaster, Wendell Baker, whose home office is filled with Scout activity calendars and posters and pictures from recent camping trips. They’re all hoping the financial pressure of new tax laws will push the Boy Scouts to revise their policies again.

“We’re basically telling kids that if you come out, you can’t be a camp counselor when you grow up,” said Baker. “And a lot of the kids in my troop want to be camp counselors. They love summer camp. But if you’re an adult the Boy Scouts won’t hire you. They won’t even let you be a member. That’s discrimination.”

“A distasteful way to do public policy”

National Boy Scout leadership refused a request for an interview. In an emailed statement the organization said, “The State of California needs Scouting, which gives young people the opportunity to develop skills and take responsibility while inspiring a lifetime of character and service.” Former national Scout executive Rick Cronk testified against the measure at a Senate committee earlier this year, warning that lawmakers were “talking about taxing revenue that is very important to the local Scout troop or pack.”

The California Association of Nonprofits also opposes the measure. CEO Jan Masaoka said she’s anti-discrimination, but she doesn’t think  California’s Franchise Tax Board should  be put in the position of weighing in on whether nonprofits discriminate, as the bill requires. “That’s not something that’s really within their purview. We have other state agencies that do that successfully, and it should be there.”

Masaoka called the measure “a thinly veiled attack … on the Boy Scouts of America,” adding “it’s a distasteful way to do public policy.”

Since the bill changes tax laws, it needs two-thirds support to pass. Lara, the bill’s sponsor, admits that getting two-thirds of lawmakers to vote against an organization he calls “as American as apple pie” is tough – especially now that Democrats have temporarily lost their Assembly supermajority due to vacant seats.

But he’s confident it will get a vote — if not by the end of this fall’s legislative deadline, then early next year.

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About the Author ()

Sacramento bureau chief Scott Detrow covers state government, politics and policy for KQED News and its statewide news program, The California Report. Before joining KQED, Scott reported on Pennsylvania's natural gas drilling boom for NPR's StateImpact project. Reach Scott Detrow at sdetrow@kqed.org.

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