Dale v. Boy Scouts of America: Summary & Significance

Instructor: David White
Among the legal battles around LGBT equality, Dale v. Boy Scouts of America is one of the more controversial. You'll learn about origins of the case, explore how and why it reached the Supreme Court, and gain insight into the implications and consequences of the decision.

Who Is James Dale?

Imagine that you've been an active member of a local civic group for over a decade and your participation has become a big part of your identity. Now imagine that one day you receive a notice from the other members of your group informing you that you are no longer welcome because you don't meet the standards for membership due to an innate part of your identity. After so many years contributing to the group, you'd probably be confused, hurt, and maybe a little angry, which is precisely how James Dale felt when he was ejected from the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) in 1990 for being an openly gay man.

James Dale, 2009

In 10 years of participating in his local chapter of the Boy Scouts of America, which he joined at eight years old, James Dale had reached the highest level and had been given several awards. When he aged out of the program at 18, he applied for a position as assistant scoutmaster, a position that he held for nearly two years until the summer of 1990 when he was dismissed following a statement he made in the local paper about being openly gay. After going back and forth with the BSA administration, Dale filed suit against the organization in Superior Court seeking reinstatement and damages, taking the first step on the path to the 2000 US Supreme Court case of Dale v. Boy Scouts of America.

Superior Court Case

James Dale's Superior Court case against the BSA was fairly straightforward: by revoking his membership, the organization had violated the state's public accommodation laws. These laws vary from state to state, but in simple terms they require any business or organization serving the public to make their products or services available to any member of the willing public. For example, if you owned a hotel, public accommodations laws dictate that you have to serve anyone who wants to book a room, regardless of what you think of them. One of the main purposes of these laws to prevent business owners from discriminating against someone based on their race, ethnicity, or disability.

The BSA, on the other hand, claimed that Dale's openly gay lifestyle was at odds with their values, and his forced reinstatement would be a violation of their first amendment right to freedom of expressive association. Moreover, the BSA argued that, as a private organization, they are not bound by public accommodation laws because they were not a business or a public organization, but a private civic group.

The BSA claimed that reinstating Dale would conflict with their teachings on masculinity and morality.
boy scouts

In this case, the Superior Court judge agreed that the BSA is not a public entity and as such the public accommodations law did not apply to them, meaning that they did indeed have the right to approve or revoke membership using any criteria that they see fit.

State Supreme Court Case

Exercising his right to challenge the lower court's decision, Dale and his lawyers appealed the ruling in the State Supreme Court. In the earlier case, the judge ruled that the BSA was a private organization and didn't have to adhere to public accommodations laws, which is where things start to get a little tricky.

In the eyes of the law, a public entity is any business or organization that is open to the general public and advertises as such. Yet, while the Superior Court judge ruled that the BSA was not a public entity, the State Supreme Court felt otherwise. According to their ruling, the group's national 'broad-based' status and their various relationships with other public groups qualified them as a public entity. This meant that, regardless of how they felt about Dale's orientation, revoking his membership did constitute a violation of public accommodations laws.

US Supreme Court Case

With the Superior Court ruling overturned, it was the BSA's turn to appeal, this time to the US Supreme Court, which delivered a final decision on the matter in 2000.

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