West Newbury reviews bias rule

Boy Scouts’ access to facilities questioned

Town officials to Boy Scouts: If you’re going to discriminate, you may have to take your business elsewhere.

West Newbury selectmen are mulling a proposal that would bar groups that openly discriminate from using town facilities.

“I would hope that this town would not condone discrimination,’’ said Selectman Glenn Kemper after presenting the proposal at a meeting earlier this month. “I think we are doing that now by letting people who discriminate use our facilities.’’

The Boy Scouts of America — which recently reaffirmed its longtime stance that excludes openly gay leaders and members — was the only group mentioned by name during discussions, and is the one that would be immediately impacted by such a policy.

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Troop No. 26 holds weekly meetings in the town’s parks and recreation building.

Local scouts and leaders were “blindsided,’’ and “shocked’’ by the proposed plan, according to Troop 26 committee chairman Harvey Ing, who called it “misguided’’ based on all that the scouts have done for the community over the years. The troop — which has about 14 boys — is taking a preliminary look at private facilities for its meetings and events, Ing said, “just in case,’’ but is waiting to see what selectmen decide.

Ing noted the scouts’ involvement in the town, including marking trails and installing signs at the Mill Pond recreation area, performing various flag ceremonies, and leading the yearly Memorial Day parade.

Ing said the local troop was never notified about the proposal, and only heard about it when the local newspaper ran a front-page story. The Boy Scouts have been using the parks and recreation building for meetings for several years, he said, and have also held a pinewood derby regularly in the 1910 Building Annex, while making use of various other town buildings.

Troop representatives have contacted Kemper, but Ing said they haven’t received a response; they also have a call out to the selectmen’s office.

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Troop scoutmaster William Sergeant declined to comment “in service to the best interests of our scouts, our troop, and our town.’’

Town counsel Michael McCarron is looking into the ramifications of a policy change, and selectmen expect to discuss the issue in mid-September.  

President Obama has spoken out against the Boy Scouts’ policy against gays, as has Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Likewise, some scout and den leaders across the country have resigned in protest — including Karin Weldon of Brookline, who created an online petition with 307 signatures as of Wednesday — while some Eagle Scouts have returned their badges.

But West Newbury appears to be the first local town grappling with the issue as a community.

Kemper, who was not available for additional comment beyond the meeting, stressed that the Boy Scouts have “every right’’ to run their organization as they see fit.

“I have no problem with what they do in their own private organization,’’ he said, also noting that it’s his right to not be involved with them, based on his own beliefs.

However, he made a case for the policy change by pointing to town bylaws that dictate that the town cannot discriminate against any applicants for employment, or an employee, on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, gender, age, physical or mental handicap, or military veteran’s status (or any other characteristics or status protected under state and federal law).

Bylaws also dictate that the town will provide equal access to its services, programs, and facilities. Kemper also noted that the town can purchase goods and services only from companies that have policies of nondiscrimination.

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Ultimately, he said, these policies should extend to groups that regularly make use of town facilities. “It’s pretty self-explanatory,’’ he said. “I can’t imagine anyone not going along with it. . . . “It’s been festering in me for years. It’s time.’’

Another selectman, Dick Cushing, thanked Kemper for bringing the proposal forward, calling it an “important and provocative’’ topic.

The Haverhill-based Yankee Clipper Council, which facilitates troops in 52 communities — including West Newbury — said it hasn’t received any notification from the town, according to Kevin Nichols,  scout executive/CEO.

“We would hope that any government entity would uphold the constitutional rights of all citizens and community groups even though they may not personally agree with all viewpoints,’’ he said in a written statement.

“By focusing on the goals that unite us, rather than on one issue that divides us,’’ Nichols said, “we are able to accomplish incredible things for young people and the communities the [Boy Scouts of America] serves.’’

West Newbury selectmen agreed that it could be a potentially snarly process, requiring objectivity in identifying groups that are discriminating, a determination that could then be subject to challenge by those groups, and could even lead to charges of discrimination back at the town.

“Obviously no one is for discrimination,’’ town counsel McCarron said at the meeting. But “it bears a careful review.’’

Kemper agreed, and said it was something that the board could “bite off’’ over time.

“We want to make sure this is done properly.’’

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