The Boy Scouts' long-standing refusal to admit gay members is deplorable and offensive. But it's also legal. Just because we — or California legislators — might disagree with the discriminatory path the Boy Scouts has taken doesn't mean the organization should be singled out from other nonprofits to lose its tax-exempt status.
A bill that passed a state Senate committee this week would do just that. Under SB 323,, carried by Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens), the Boy Scouts of America (though unnamed in the bill) would have to pay state sales taxes as well as taxes on any money it raised in California — such as the proceeds from hawking caramel corn, Christmas trees or anything else — unless it admitted boys who are gay or transgender.
The aims of the bill are understandable and even laudable. But the Scouts' membership policy has been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, which in 2000 ruled 5 to 4 that the ban on gay members is protected under the Constitution because the group's opposition to homosexuality is part of its "expressive message."
Tax-exempt status is not conferred on groups for having policies beloved by lawmakers or even a majority of a state's residents. It is designed for nonprofits that provide a public benefit and that meet the requirements of reinvesting income into their programs rather than taking profits. Though nonprofits are not supposed to intervene in or take positions on political campaigns for public office, there is no requirement that they be non-controversial or meet any political litmus test.
The term "public benefit" is usually defined broadly and spans many groups that are vehemently disliked by segments of the population. The American Federation for Equal Rights, a group that advocates for gay rights, is tax exempt, even though there are people who find its work abhorrent and even immoral. So is the National Organization for Marriage, a group that works vehemently against same-sex marriage. Why, then, is California singling out the Boy Scouts' "expressive message" as unworthy of a tax exemption?
For that matter, why not target the Boy Scouts for discriminating against girls and the Girl Scouts for not allowing boys?
There are legitimate questions about whether any nonprofit group should be exempt from taxes and thus subsidized by the government and its taxpayers. That's especially true when the old concept of a grass-roots charity that gets by on a shoestring budget gives way to sophisticated organizations that pay their executives handsome salaries, spend lavishly on items not directly tied to their missions and test the limits of the rules on political campaigning.
But that's a separate matter. We yearn for the day when the closed-minded leaders of the Boy Scouts join the 21st century, but we also worry about the implications of SB 323. If legislators can go after the Scouts for engaging in legal (though offensive) behavior, what group will they go after next?