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Groundbreaking case arguing against the Boy Scouts of America’s discriminatory policy of excluding gay people from leadership positions

James Dale, pictured above left, was forced out of the Boy Scouts of America when the organization’s leaders learned that he is gay.


James Dale rose to the rank of Eagle Scout and was invited to become an assistant scoutmaster, only to be forced out in 1990 by the national Boy Scouts of America, when the organization’s leaders learned in a newspaper article that he is gay. Dale filed his lawsuit for reinstatement in the BSA — the first case to invoke New Jersey’s law prohibiting sexual orientation discrimination. In 1995, with a harshly worded opinion peppered with biblical allusions and references to “sodomy” and “buggery,” a lower court ruled against Dale, refusing to apply the New Jersey antidiscrimination law to the Boy Scouts and generally ignoring the case law governing other discrimination claims in New Jersey. Lambda Legal continued to fight on Dale’s behalf, winning landmark court victories in the New Jersey state appeals court and the New Jersey Supreme Court. In June of 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court, by a close 5–4 vote, overturned the unanimous New Jersey Supreme Court decision, ruling that because it is a private group the Boy Scouts had a constitutional right to exclude openly gay people from leadership positions.

Lambda Legal’s Impact

Although this landmark Supreme Court case did not succeed in changing the Boy Scouts’ policy, Lambda Legal’s victories in the New Jersey courts, as well as the publicity surrounding the appearance before the Supreme Court, significantly advanced the national discussion about the needs of gay youth and the fitness of gay adults to participate in the iconic institution of the Boy Scouts. As a result of the education the case generated, numerous government bodies and nonprofit organizations have decided no longer to be affiliated with or support scouting, and the Boy Scouts have set up separate “Learning for Life” programs, which no longer discriminate based on sexual orientation, to maintain some of those ties.