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United Way feels backlash of Scouts' gay policy

The charity has received complaints from donors angry about some chapters cutting funds from Boy Scout troops that exclude gays.

More and more, the outraged people look in the phone book and call their local United Way. The callers say they are infuriated that the United Way has cut off funding to the Boy Scouts because the Scouts don't allow gays.

The callers are so ticked off about this, they're never going to donate to the United Way again.

Patiently, a United Way worker will explain that nothing has changed locally; the Boy Scouts in this area will still get hundreds of thousands of dollars from the United Way. Just because the indignant caller heard that a United Way chapter in California or Connecticut is no longer funding the Scouts, that's not the case here.

Although a few Florida corporations and county governments have stopped supporting the Boy Scouts, the Scouts' ban on gays hasn't become much of an issue in the Tampa Bay area. Every local United Way chapter plans to keep funneling money to them.

"I can sit here and debate both sides of the issue with you," said Barbara Pacheco, president of the United Way of Pinellas County. "But we think it's important that boys have the opportunity to have the scouting experience.

"The Boy Scouts do a lot of good in this community. To discontinue funding them, we just weren't prepared to do that."

The controversy stems from a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in June that upheld the Boy Scouts' right to exclude homosexuals. The decision came in the case of a New Jersey Eagle Scout and assistant scoutmaster who was expelled after the Scouts learned he was in a gay student group.

"We're not a hate group. We simply feel that an avowed homosexual or atheist is not a positive role model for young people," said John Cabeza, a Boy Scout executive for Pinellas and west Pasco counties.

Eight of the country's 1,400 United Way chapters have cut off financial support of the Scouts in New Haven, Conn.; Portland, Maine; Providence, R.I.; San Francisco, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz, Calif.; Santa Fe, N.M.; and Somerset County, N.J.

The issue has surfaced in Florida as well.

Broward County decided Friday that the Scouts won't get a $92,000 grant, while Miami-Dade County schools indefinitely postponed this week's annual scouting recruitment drive. Both believe the Scouts violate their anti-discrimination rules.

The Pinellas and Hillsborough school districts still let Scout troops use their buildings.

The board of Orlando's United Way got into a heated debate over the Scouts, prompting the board's chairman to resign Tuesday.

Thursday, the board decided that the groups it funds can't discriminate against participants because of their sexual orientation. But the policy doesn't protect administrators. So Orlando Boy Scouts could lose funding if they prohibit gay Scouts, but they won't lose funding if they prohibit gay troop leaders.

In the Tampa Bay area, United Way chapters have just kicked off their annual fundraising drives, urging employees to give at the office.

The Pinellas chapter is sending a letter to CEOs, $500-plus contributors and volunteers running fundraising campaigns within various companies.

The letter explains that the Pinellas United Way will keep supporting the Boy Scouts.

Every United Way chapter is independent, run by a local volunteer board. Pinellas' 40-member board recently debated the Boy Scout question.

"The consensus wasn't 100 percent, but it was a thoughtful discussion," Pacheco said. "As you can imagine, when you put 40 people around a table, you have fire at one end and fire at the other end."

Out of $10.2-million the Pinellas charity raised last year, it gave the Boy Scouts $232,260, the same amount as in 1998.

The United Ways in Pasco, Hillsborough and Manatee counties aren't making any changes either, although that message hasn't necessarily gotten out.

"We've probably received 20-some calls over the past two weeks from people expressing anger because they assume we're not funding the Boy Scouts," said Pasco United Way president Susan White. "Some have been downright confrontational."

The Hillsborough United Way sent the Scouts $330,000 of the $16{-million it raised last year.

"It hasn't been a big issue," said president Kim Scheeler. "We're funding a program that's providing services for kids, and that's pretty much our focus."

The Boy Scouts of America claims 5-million youth members and 1.2-million adult participants. The Supreme Court ruled that, as a private organization, the Scouts have a right to exclude gays and atheists.

Scouting officials argue that, in the real world, this subject rarely comes up; it's not as if Scouts get grilled about their religious beliefs or sexual thoughts.

"(Homosexuality) is not a topic that scouting's involved in. It's the sort of question we don't bring up in scouting," said Cabeza, the Scout executive for Pinellas and west Pasco. "There's other places they can go to do that."

Some would say there's nothing more American than a Boy Scout. Even today, when modern-day Scouts camp and earn merit badges, they can look like something out of a Norman Rockwell painting.

But in an age when diversity training, same-sex partner benefits and nondiscrimination policies are becoming more prevalent, critics say the Scouts' refusal to admit gays will come to be seen as wrong.

In Broward County, those critics praised the school district for rethinking its commitment to the Scout troops that meet in school cafeterias.

"It would be a good lesson for the Scouts," said gay rights leader Dean Trantalis, "tofeel the sting of discrimination by being denied such a basic thing as access to their meeting room."

_ Staff researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report, which contains information from the Associated Press.