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Three decisions provoke more than they solve

Three rulings handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court June 28 have generated intense reaction from Catholics aligned with three interest groups: gay rights, antiabortion and educational vouchers. Many of the rest of us may give these issues little more than passing notice as we get on with our busy lives. It is not enough.

All three decisions deserve serious, sustained reflection from Catholics who understand their religion to be more than a private affair.

In a 5-4 vote, Supreme Court justices ruled that Boy Scouts could bar gay members from the program. The ruling applies not only to leaders, as some news reports have suggested, but also to members. That includes boys in middle school and high school, who are often struggling to understand themselves as sexual beings.

The basis for the court’s decision was unrelated to the question of whether Boy Scouts are characterized as a public or a private organization under the law (another common misconception in news reports). The New Jersey Supreme Court had already determined that Scouting fit the state’s definition of a public group, so the U.S. court had no reason to explore that issue.

Rather, the ruling was based on an argument by the Boy Scouts that a heterosexuals-only policy is inherent to the group’s identity and message. The basis of their reasoning is that two terms in the familiar Scout Oath and Law -- “morally straight” and “clean” -- are intended to bar homosexuals from the program.

Many who have spent years in Scouting may be surprised to learn that the Boy Scouts interpret those terms in that way. Indeed, dissenting justices criticized the majority for its facile acceptance of that interpretation.

It probably is not the expectation of anyone enrolling a son in Boy Scouts that the issue of homosexuality would take its place amid troop discussions of merit badges and camping trips. But since the issue has been raised, it is important that local troops consider what kind of message they send. That consideration is especially important for groups attached to Catholic churches -- one of the biggest sponsors of Boy Scout troops. It may be time to seriously reexamine churches’ longstanding and widespread support. The social policy board of the United Methodist church, which sponsors some 420,000 Scouts, has moved in the right direction by publicly condemning the organization’s position on gays, though the board stopped short of calling for churches to sever ties with troops.

It is instructive to note that the ruling, authored by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, refers to homosexuality as “a value,” betraying a major weakness of the decision. As homosexuals come together to reflect and deepen their understanding of their identity, they assert that their sexual preferences are no more “a value” than the color of a person’s skin. Rather, they tell us, homosexuality is at the core of their identity as persons. Increasingly, that is the view of responsible voices in the disciplines exploring the issue of homosexuality. It is only those on the fringes of science and theology who assert that God would be pleased if homosexuals sought to change their sexual orientation.

Such new understandings should push Catholics further along the continuum of inclusiveness. What a powerful statement it would make to the world if Scout troops sponsored by Catholic parishes let it be known that they will not exclude on the basis of sexual orientation. Immediate disavowal of such discriminatory policies would send a message to boys, young men and adults leaders every bit as character-building as anything else in the Boy Scout program.

Two other Supreme Court rulings, one refusing to uphold Nebraska’s ban on the procedure known as “partial-birth abortion” and another allowing use of public funds to provide computers to religious schools, also carry noteworthy messages.

The ruling against the Nebraska law -- and, in effect, against similar laws in 30 other states -- points up anew how anguished the culture is over the painfully divisive issue of abortion. The court ruled against the law because the state barred specific types of medical procedures without allowing for exceptions to preserve a woman’s health. Nebraska allowed an exception only to preserve a woman’s life.

However abhorrent partial-birth abortion is to caring people, an exception to also preserve a woman’s health, the one the court found missing, seems reasonable in a pluralistic society. But reasonable is not a word that works well in the highly charged context of the public debate over abortion, where arguments are formulated at the most extreme ends of the spectrum.

James J. Walter, professor of theological studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, was commenting on the implications of the genome project when he said of the court decision, “We can’t agree in this society what a person is.”

The lack of consensus on that fundamental point, of course, is the sand upon which legal opinions have been based since the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. It is the fundamental reason why law has been unable to adequately deal with the matter of abortion. And it is why we are left to try to puzzle out in courts what should remain private medical decisions over extreme cases, agonized over by parents and physicians.

Perhaps the more compelling day-to-day question that abortion foes need to ask themselves is whether costly and tedious effort aimed at more restrictive laws is really the most effective means of combating abortion.

The third ruling is one that many Catholics will celebrate. It allows provision of publicly funded instructional equipment, including computers, to private and religious schools. As Sandra Day O’Connor expressed it in writing her opinion, public funds are allowed for textbooks, and computers are becoming the textbooks of our time. True, computers could be used to promote religion. But a majority of the justices apparently trust teachers and administrators in religious schools to use the computers for legal purposes: for instruction that is unrelated to religion.

Advocates of educational vouchers, which allow parents to use public funds to send their children to public, private or religious schools, did not pause long to celebrate before concluding that the court’s decision is indicative of voucher support.

Perhaps it is. It is too soon to tell. Meanwhile, Catholics are overlooking their debt to a society that not only offers limited support to Catholic schools but is prepared to educate their children even if Catholic schools disappear.

In the pursuit of vouchers, do Catholics owe anything to public education, which so vitally affects our national life?

In parishes, in homes and in the highest levels of church life, that debate hasn’t even begun.

National Catholic Reporter, July 14, 2000