Boy Scouts still to carry liberty bell in parade

Sasha Talcott

In a controversial compromise designed to placate gay rights activists, Evanston’s Boy Scouts still will carry the liberty bell in the city’s Fourth of July parade, but organizers said Thursday they plan to ask gay residents to march as well.

David Sniader, president of the Evanston Fourth of July Association, said taking the liberty bell away from the Boy Scouts would discriminate against the group.

“We just don’t feel comfortable excluding anyone from this parade,” he said. “I don’t think anyone these days could feel 100 percent comfortable with the Boy Scouts’ internal policies, but the good that they do locally outweighs the national policy they’ve chosen to take.”

But one local activist blasted the compromise, which allows the scouts to keep an honored parade position despite their decision to ban gay scout leaders. Evanston resident Clark Flint, a former Eagle Scout who originally complained to the city about the bell, called the proposal “a load of crap” and said it still allows a discriminatory group to carry a symbol of freedom.

“The city had the opportunity to do the right thing and they faltered,” he said. “I’d be the last person to say that the Boy Scouts don’t have the right to march in the Fourth of July parade. I just thought the city’s liberty bell should not be given to this group.”

It is not clear whether the city or the Fourth of July Association owns the bell, a fact that might have helped to solve the dispute.

The scouts “absolutely” should carry the liberty bell in the parade, said Michael Albano, committee chairman for Evanston Troop 16.

“My view is that there is no reason the scouts don’t deserve to carry it and a lot of reasons why they do,” he said.

Albano listed the scouts’ unswerving dedication to community service, their respect for the flag and their representation of youth all as reasons they should keep their traditional place in the parade.

Evanston’s Human Relations Commission stepped into the fray last year, when Flint and Ald. Ann Rainey (8th) asked commissioners to reconsider the scouts’ ceremonial role in the parade.

The commission sent a letter to the Fourth of July Association after the 2000 parade but received no response. The Boy Scouts again led the parade in July, but the Human Rights Commission asked parade organizers Tuesday to reach out to the gay community for next year’s celebration.

“The Human Relations Commission is not against the Boy Scouts at all,” said Hallie Rosen, the commission’s co-chairwoman. “The issue for us is the symbol of the liberty bell. Unfortunately, (the Boy Scouts) have come to symbolize, in spite of the work that they do, being an organization not open to all.”

Rosen suggested that parade organizers give the honor of carrying the bell to the Girl Scouts, which allows gay scout leaders.

When the Fourth of July Association begins its formal meetings in January, a commission member will attend and help brainstorm ways to reach out to Evanston’s gay community.

“If the liberty bell stands for a great thing, how can a group carry it that excludes gays?” Human Relations Commissioner Barry Slavis said. “I just don’t understand that.”

At a meeting Tuesday, commissioners suggested taking the unprecedented step of contacting gay groups to join the parade and giving them money to build a float. The Fourth of July Association has never asked any group to join the parade.

With the Fourth of July still 10 months away, association leaders said they have plenty of time to appease as many Evanston residents as possible.

“We’d love to have the gay population in the parade to participate in whichever way they’d like,” Sniader said. “I have to tell you that I can understand people disliking the Boy Scouts’ policy if they’re directly affected. I just don’t see that we’re in a position to discriminate against them.”

But Flint said he probably never would feel comfortable marching in the parade, which he said does not adequately reflect the city’s diversity.

“It’s a non-inclusive Fourth of July parade,” he said. “We’re talking affluent, white suburbia. It’s not the inclusive rah-rah celebration you want it to be.”

Since the Supreme Court ruled last year that the Boy Scouts can exclude members or scout leaders who are openly gay, cities across the country are struggling to reconcile local anti-discrimination ordinances with the scouts’ record of community service.

Last month in Berkeley, Calif., Mayor Shirley Dean ignited a storm of controversy when she moved a ceremony in honor of visiting Japanese Boy Scouts out of City Hall.

In Evanston, the United Way revoked funding for the Boy Scouts, and Evanston/Skokie School District 65 briefly debated whether it should continue allowing the scouts to meet on school grounds.

But Sniader said the Boy Scouts’ local contribution should outweigh any unfavorable national publicity.

“The local scouts are our neighbors, and we don’t want to hurt them at all,” Sniader said. “It stands for so much more. It’s an honor to allow them to carry the bell.”