New book by Richard Ellis explores gay rights, freedom of association

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In 2000, the case of Boy Scouts of America v. James Dale was brought to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The case centered on Dale, a 19-year-old Eagle Scout and assistant scoutmaster in New Jersey, who came out as gay in the summer of 1990. The Boy Scouts, citing their policy that denied membership to “avowed homosexuals,” terminated Dale’s membership. With the aid of the Lambda Legal Defense Fund, Dale responded by suing for discrimination.

Boy Scout leadership insisted that homosexuality violated the Scouts’ pledge to be “morally straight.” On June 28, 2000, the Supreme Court agreed.

In a 5-4 ruling, the court stated that the Boy Scout’s opposition to homosexuality was part of the organization’s “expressive message” — which allowed them to exclude homosexuals as adult leaders.

In Richard Ellis’ newest book, “Judging the Boy Scouts of America: Gay Rights, Freedom of Association and the Dale Case,” the Willamette University politics professor tracks the case from its initial filing through the final decision of the Supreme Court.

Ellis says people should read this book to understand the conflict between freedom from discrimination and freedom of association, to understand more about gay rights, and to critically assess the way the American judicial system works.

“Hopefully, people will see it as an attempt to tell the legal conflict between the Boy Scouts of America and James Dale in a fair and balanced way,” Ellis says. “At the same time, they should expect a book that is critical of the Boy Scouts’ discriminatory policy, a policy that is, as I say in the book, on ‘the wrong side of history.’”

Evaluating the Issues

In “Judging the Boy Scouts of America,” Ellis examines the legal issues at stake and the effects of the Supreme Court’s ruling, as well as Dale’s personal journey and its intersection with an evolving gay rights movement.

“‘Gay rights’ is perhaps the most important civil rights issue of this generation, and the Boy Scouts are perhaps the most iconic of American organizations,” Ellis says. “This is a legal and philosophical conflict that touches all of us personally and viscerally.”

Ellis’ interest in writing about Dale’s case stemmed from teaching a course at Willamette called “Liberalism and Its Critics,” which he taught for almost 10 years before writing the book.

“On the one hand, we attach value to freedom from discrimination and equal treatment, and on the other hand, we attach value to the freedom of association,” Ellis says.

“Allowing powerful, socially favored groups to discriminate against marginalized minorities perpetuates prejudice and fosters hate, but it is also true that empowering the state to dictate a group’s membership poses an equally profound threat to liberal democracy.”

Writing History

Ellis decided to examine this dilemma through Dale’s case.

He began his research in the summer of 2008. Ellis says he considered ending the project several times because of his difficulty in gaining direct access to the decision-making process of the court and other legal institutions.

“These institutions work hard to prevent people from peering behind the curtains and thereby concealing their deliberations,” Ellis says. “However, there was a lot of relevant information that was revealed in the various court cases involving the Scouts, and I also got a lot of help from people who were challenging the Scouts’ discriminatory policy in court.

“Ultimately, I decided that I would write the best book I had with the information that I had available. When more information becomes available, I’ll be happy to see someone write a more complete history.”

This is Ellis’ 17th book. His other books, including “American Political Cultures” and “Founding the American Presidency,” explore such themes as the role of culture in politics, conflicting views on policy reform, and the importance of rhetoric and historical perspectives in American presidencies.

“Judging the Boy Scouts of America” will be available in paperback for $17.95 on Amazon on April 28. The Willamette Store also plans to have copies available at the beginning of May.

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