Dispute over Boy Scouts hits Arundel community

For Tres Kerns, his mission has never been more important, his calling never clearer than now.

As the 40-year-old father of five addressed the Anne Arundel County school board recently in support of the Boy Scouts' exclusion of homosexuals, he was resolute.


Homosexuality is on the verge of being normalized in this country, he said. And he sees that as a threat to his family, his country and his God.

Fueled by his beliefs and a painful childhood experience, the Severna Park salesman founded Citizens for Parents' Rights two years ago, a network of like-minded residents throughout the state that seeks to preserve the traditional family.


Since the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Boy Scouts of America's right to exclude homosexuals in June, the issue of the Scouts has become a focal point of the group's crusade against increasing tolerance of homosexuality. Using it to rouse supporters, Kerns has helped bring to Anne Arundel County a cultural war that conservatives say they are fighting for the future of American morality.

"It's obviously going to be an issue until this country as a whole makes a decision if we are going to legitimize homosexual behavior or not," he said recently. "Everybody would like to live peacefully, but eventually one [philosophy] has to prevail over the other. They cannot co-exist."

On Oct. 24, Kerns and his minister, the Rev. David Whitney of Cornerstone Evangelical Free Church in Pasadena, staged a rally on the beach in the quiet community of Cape St. Claire, just outside Annapolis, after the community association considered ending its sponsorship of a Cub Scout pack. The rally, which featured speeches by former Republican presidential hopeful Alan L. Keyes and Bob Knight of the Family Research Council, drew nearly 300 people.

Then, on Nov. 15, Kerns and Whitney organized about 50 local residents to attend the school board meeting to speak against recent suggestions that the board review its relationship with the Scouts and include sexual orientation in its anti-discrimination policy.

Kerns began his plea to the school board by telling of the experience that led him to activism: When he was 10 years old, he said, while attending a now-defunct all-boys camp in Baltimore County, a male camp counselor sexually molested him.

"I'm not saying that all homosexuals are pedophiles," he told the board. "But when you open up this door, what moral ground do you have to stand on?"

It is that moral ground that is in dispute, the subjective land claimed by conservatives and liberals alike.

To many homosexuals and their supporters, it is an issue of human rights.


"We should be able to be who we are, and at the very least not lose our jobs," said Susan Dennis, 38, a lesbian parent of two from Annapolis and former teacher in Washington. "Even more important, in my view, is teaching tolerance and the tone the school system sets."

Dennis approached the Anne Arundel County school board last month about adding sexual orientation to its anti-discrimination policy, which protects against discrimination based on race, age, gender, religion, national origin, disability or socioeconomic status. At least four school districts in Maryland - Howard, Montgomery, Prince George's and Talbot - have anti-discrimination policies that include sexual orientation. Her request followed the plea in September by an Annapolis couple for the school system to ban the Scouts. Board President Paul Rudolph told the crowd opposing the move at the November meeting that the board has not yet reached a decision and is reviewing the legal ramifications of the Supreme Court's decision.

Kerns, like many conservative activists, believes homosexuality is a sexual deviance and should not be protected, forced on the Boy Scouts or taught to children.

"It's clear this [homosexual] movement is about more than just tolerance," said Kerns, who contends there is a link between homosexuality and pedophilia. "This movement is about forcing one ideology over another."

In a 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court overturned a New Jersey decision that said the Boy Scouts violated the state's anti-discrimination laws when the group expelled troop leader James Dale because he is gay. The high court ruled that the Boy Scouts, as a private organization, could exercise its right to free assembly by determining requirements for its leaders.

The decision has prompted several groups nationwide - including chapters of the United Way, city councils and school systems - to sever ties with the Scouts. The Montgomery County school board is also reviewing its policies toward the organization in light of its nondiscrimination policy.


Conservative groups have viewed action against the Boy Scouts as an affront to what they call traditional values and have used it as a springboard to talk about their views on homosexuality. At the Cape St. Claire rally, Knight, senior director of cultural studies at the conservative Family Research Council in Washington, called the Boy Scouts "our Normandy in the cultural struggle."

Todd Bennett, an Annapolis lawyer and secretary of the Cape St. Claire Board of Governors, said he was trying to be fair when he suggested that the community reconsider its ties with Cub Scout Pack 707, which it has sponsored for about 30 years.

The pack is the only group the community officially sponsors, and the board has to sign an agreement that says it will conduct the troop in accordance with the national organization's guidelines. Bennett thought that presented a potential legal problem for the community association, a quasi-government entity that receives money from its residents through a special taxing district, he said. So he proposed treating Pack 707 as the board does other groups, including other Scout troops, by allowing it to use the clubhouse for free but not officially sponsoring it. He believed he had reached an agreement with local Boy Scout leaders to turn over the pack's sponsorship to a group of parents, he said.

But when Whitney, the Pasadena minister and a Cape St. Claire resident, heard the board was considering ending its sponsorship of the pack, he and Kerns, an elder in his church, mobilized a grass-roots campaign.

Going door-to-door with a petition, they gathered 150 signatures from residents, Whitney said, more than enough to force a communitywide vote on the issue, and distributed absentee ballots to supporters who could not attend the community meeting Oct. 24.

Whitney called the community's response "overwhelming."


But Bennett, 32, said Whitney and Kerns misrepresented the board's plans, telling neighbors in their literature that the board was trying to "remove the [Boy Scouts of America] from Cape St. Claire" and keep the troop from using the clubhouse, which was never the board's intention.

The way Kerns and Whitney portrayed it, "it was like saying, 'Do you support apple pie?'" Bennett said.

On the night of the meeting, the rally featured speeches that focused on the morality of homosexuality. In a rousing speech with many references to "God Almighty," Keyes said the Anne Arundel County rally should be an example to the nation and a "fair word of warning."

"As we gather here in support of Boy Scouts in the Cape, we are gathering in support of freedom, in support of the right kind of American future with Americans all over this country," he said.

The community voted 625-70 in favor of maintaining sponsorship of the pack. Their methods were so successful that Kerns and Whitney now plan to make an instructional video for other communities seeking to fight what they call "the homosexual agenda."

Though Bennett acknowledged the defeat, he said the community has about 2,500 households, with two votes each.


"There are people out there who view this as a jihad, a culture war," he said. "For the time being, the conservatives are going to have the upper hand, because when they feel an assault against their way of life, it's easier to mobilize."