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Of Boy Scouts and Boycotts : Bias: Civil rights conflict with ‘traditional family values’ in a dispute that has pitted the youth group against three big Bay Area companies.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It seems an unlikely clash of symbols: rugged denim jeans and an Old West stagecoach against merit badges and campfires.

But simmering behind those time-worn images of Americana is a struggle over homosexuality, God, civil rights and “traditional family values.”

It’s the Battle of the Boy Scouts, Part II.

Last year’s fight was in the courtroom: Atheist twins from Anaheim sued for readmittance to the Cub Scouts (the twins won), and a gay man from Los Angeles sued to become a Scoutmaster (he lost but is appealing).

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This year’s war is in the fitting room and the teller line. It erupted in May, amid reports that Levi Strauss & Co., Wells Fargo Bank and BankAmerica Corp. had cut off funding to Bay Area Boy Scout councils because of discriminatory policies against gays and atheists.

Congressmen, parents, even the Republican Party quickly jumped into the fray, launching letter campaigns and boycotts against the banks and the jeans company.

“You just don’t pick on the Boy Scouts,” says Robert Knight of the Washington-based Family Research Council, a fundamentalist Christian organization. “That’s like picking on Mom and apple pie.”

The result has been an awkward, even ironic, conflict. All three companies, for example, are run by former Scouts. And all three have taken considerable flak, some in such unexpected places as their own corporate boardrooms.

The boycotters, too, have adopted a seemingly contradictory stance: They complain that the companies, by withdrawing funding, are bullying a private organization (the Scouts) to change its policies. But in urging a boycott of those companies, they end up advocating the very thing they are condemning: Squeezing the finances of a private organization (Levi Strauss, Wells Fargo, BofA) in an attempt to dictate that organization’s policy.

Meanwhile, the chief player in the controversy, the Bay Area affiliate of the United Way--which yanked far more Scout funding ($780,000 a year) than the three companies combined (about $100,000)--remains largely unmentioned by boycott organizers.

Most curious, perhaps, is the detached role of national Scout leaders, who don’t endorse the boycotts and apparently wish the whole issue would just go away.

Instead, the conflict has assumed a life of its own--dragging in other entities against their will and pointing up the perils of corporate entanglements in social issues. The one company that has tried to escape the uproar, BankAmerica--which restored Scout funding Aug. 18--is now under attack from both sides.

Levi Strauss and Wells Fargo deny rumors that they will soon follow BofA’s lead, but both clearly long for different circumstances.

“It’s an uncomfortable position to be in . . .” says Levi Strauss spokeswoman Mary Gross. “This is the first time we’ve fallen victim to something this huge.”

In a sense, the Battle of the Boy Scouts is a story of one city, San Francisco, versus the rest of the country.

Although skirmishes have broken out in other areas--Chicago’s United Way chapter, for instance, put the Scouts on probation but left their funding intact--the roots of the controversy lie in the Bay Area, with its highly visible and vocal gay population.

The Cub Scout atheist lawsuit and homosexual Scoutmaster court action sparked substantial media coverage and boardroom hand-wringing. As early as June, 1991, the Bay Area United Way began debating a fund cut-off, saying the Scouts’ policies regarding gay or atheist members and leaders conflicted with United Way’s non-discrimination policy.

The Scouts say they admit any boy who agrees to abide by the Scout oath and Scout law, which includes an allegiance to God and a promise to remain “morally straight” (which the Scouts interpret as meaning not homosexual).

“There are no background checks, bedroom checks or church checks,” says Scout spokesman Blake Lewis. “But if someone joins and then later announces he is an atheist (or gay), he has said he has different values . . . and then an action is taken. . . . You can’t pick and choose the rules you’re going to follow.” The Scouts also ban homosexual troop leaders.

The United Way, after months of discussion with Scout leaders, said it had no choice but to cut off the group’s funding.

In similar fashion, the Berkeley and San Francisco school districts kicked the Scouts off school property.

Then the corporations got involved--and the controversy escalated. When the Oakland Tribune published a story saying Wells Fargo had unplugged its Boy Scout funding, nothing happened, says Kathleen Shilkret, a bank spokeswoman.

And a San Francisco Chronicle story about Levi’s cut-off produced only a few dozen calls of protest to the clothing company’s headquarters.

Within a matter of days, however, Christian radio station KBRT-AM of Costa Mesa and the Mississippi-based American Family Assn., among others, began urging listeners and followers to close their bank accounts and start wearing Lees and Wranglers.

“Levi Strauss . . . (is) punishing the Boy Scouts of America because the Boy Scouts will not bow down to Levi Strauss’ demands to use homosexuals as Scoutmasters,” declared a flyer distributed by he American Family Assn.

Such reactions stung company officials, who said they made their decisions quietly--without press conferences or public announcements--on the basis of longstanding company policies that forbid charitable contributions to groups that discriminate because of religious beliefs or sexual preference.

“We’re not telling them what to do. That’s their business,” says Levi Strauss’ Gross. “I really do feel we’ve been victimized on this.”

In fact, the only group that did deliver an ultimatum was the Bay Area United Way, which gave the Scouts five years to change their discrimination stance, according to United Way spokesman John Stafford.

Yet United Way seems to have escaped much of the boycotters’ wrath.

“Frankly, we haven’t thought about them too much,” concedes U. S. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Long Beach), who is at the forefront of the boycott against the companies. “I don’t know why.”

The boycott’s success has been mixed.

Levi Strauss is doing “better than ever,” Gross says. Since the protests began, the company has logged record sales and profits each month:

The banks refuse to specify how much money angry customers have withdrawn. But even the highest figure bandied by boycotters--$150 million--is but a fraction of the banks’ total deposits, which are close to $200 billion combined. “There hasn’t been a significant impact,” says Wells Fargo spokeswoman Kim Kellogg.

Most fallout has come from other directions.

Richard Rosenberg, BankAmerica’s CEO and a former Boy Scout who still sits on the Bay Area Scout council board, reportedly took a lot of heat on the issue from within and outside of the company. (He declined a request for an interview.)

And a few days after the Republican Party adopted a platform attacking the three companies’ Scout stance, BankAmerica abruptly reversed itself, saying the group was again eligible for contributions. Bank officials said Scout leaders had clarified their admission policy as “open to all boys.”

When Scout officials later denied any changes--"The Scout oath and the Scout law are not up for sale,” a national spokesman said--BankAmerica declined further comment.

Also under the gun is Wells Fargo chairman Carl Reichardt, another ex-Scout who reportedly got grilled on the issue at this summer’s Bohemian Grove retreat--an exclusive annual hideaway for America’s corporate and government elite.

James Dickason, a Wells Fargo director, says Reichardt and the company board have agreed that compromise is needed: “I think it’s an impossible task to satisfy everyone, but we’ve got to try.”

Levi Strauss, on the other hand, denies a rumor that it, too, is seeking a graceful escape: “I’d be absolutely shocked if (our policy) changed,” says Gross.

The Boy Scouts of America, meanwhile, seems strangely removed from the battle waged on its behalf.

Lewis, at Scout headquarters in the Dallas area, says he disagrees with assertions by Rohrabacher and others that the companies are trying to bully or coerce the Scouts. The two sides simply have differing policies and are acting accordingly, Lewis adds.

The Scouts don’t endorse calls for boycotts: “That’s not been our practice. We’ve not asked any of our members to do that,” he says.

But moral debates have a way of assuming a life of their own.

Not surprisingly, then, the Scout controversy shows no signs of collapsing. “If this needs to be escalated, we’ll keep escalating it,” says John Stewart, a KBRT talk-show host.

As it continues, however, other parties find themselves unwillingly pulled into the vortex. First Interstate Bank, for one, suddenly ended up on boycott lists when someone discovered it ended Scout funding a year ago. Company officials insist their move was “for budgetary reasons and without any pressure from outside organizations.”

Says John Popovich, a First Interstate spokesman: “I wish this issue would go away.”

Likewise, United Way affiliates nationwide have sought to distance themselves from the action taken by Bay Area and Chicago counterparts. The Sacramento and San Jose United Way chapters went so far as to call press conferences to assure the public they still donated to the Boy Scouts. (In June, the Greater Los Angeles United Way board voted down a proposal to stop funding any groups, including the Scouts, that discriminate on the basis of sexual preference. Orange County’s United Way continues to fund the Scouts after rejecting a complaint that the organization discriminated against atheists.)

Once drawn into the controversy, however, escape may seem impossible.

Even BankAmerica’s decision to resume Scout funding hasn’t freed it from the web.

The fact that the bank would withdraw Scout support in the first place should raise a question about its political philosophy, says Knight of the Family Research Council.

And conservatives aren’t the only ones grumbling. Soon after the bank reversed itself, another boycott began against BofA--this time by homosexuals.


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