GOP defense of Boy Scouts draws hypocrisy charge

Several years ago, Republicans in the General Assembly pushed a bill to prohibit local governments and schools from banning the Boy Scouts from their buildings because of the organization's stand against gay scoutmasters.

Democrats running the Legislature at the time managed to bottle it up in committees.

Now, with the GOP in control, the Scouts may be back on the agenda at the Gold Dome.

The backdrop is a recent decision by Bank of America to withhold its usual charitable donation to a regional Boy Scouts council based in Valdosta because of the national organization's prohibition of gays serving as troop leaders.

That news has fired up two Republicans from Cobb County: Rep. Earl Ehrhart of Powder Springs - the chief sponsor of the earlier Defense of Scouting Act - and Sen. John Wiles of Marietta.

The two have vowed to introduce bills in their respective chambers next winter that would forbid the state from doing business with any company that discriminates against youth groups.

"I can't understand why a business would want to discriminate against an organization that takes young men and turns them into good citizens,'' Wiles said. "It's just wrong.''

Given the political climate in Georgia, where a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage passed two years ago with 76 percent of the vote, any measure that directly or indirectly supports the Boy Scouts' ban on gay scoutmasters wouldn't be hard pressed to find a lot of support in the General Assembly.

But that's not stopping critics from charging hypocrisy on the part of legislative Republicans.

Senate Minority Leader Robert Brown, D-Macon, said any move by lawmakers to dictate how a private business should spend its money flies in the face of what Republicans always have claimed to stand for.

"This Georgia Republican Party has been topsy-turvy in its rhetoric and reality,'' Brown said.

Wiles turns that argument around. If businesses have a right to decide what to do with their money, he said, Georgia lawmakers have just as much right to determine where to invest the taxpayers' money.

"I don't think the citizens of Georgia want us to put their money in a place that openly discriminates against a group of Georgians,'' he said.

"There are a lot of banks in Georgia that would probably choose not to discriminate against Georgians.''

But Brown said he's not so sure.

"I don't know where we're going to put their money,'' he said. "You can probably find somebody somewhere that all banks are discriminating against.

"We'd have to end up establishing a state bank, and I know they don't want to do that.''

Brown said the debate reminds him of the multiyear effort that longtime Rep. Tyrone Brooks, D-Atlanta, waged during the 1980s to convince the General Assembly to divest the state of investments in companies doing business with the then-apartheid government of South Africa.

"The conservative position was that we shouldn't inject politics into the market system,'' Brown said.

But Wiles said interfering with the private sector is not what his bill would be about.

"This is not us saying they can't do business in Georgia,'' he said. "We're saying we won't do business with them.''

This being an election year, it's possible that neither Wiles nor Ehrhart will be around next year to introduce their bill.

However, that's unlikely. While both face Republican primary opposition, no Democrat signed up to run in either of their heavily Republican districts.

If the GOP retains control of the General Assembly, Ehrhart would be in a particularly strong position to ease the skids for the bill. As chairman of the House Rules Committee, he controls what reaches the floor for a vote.

That's one less bill likely to get bottled up.

Dave Williams is a staff writer for the Gwinnett Daily Post. E-mail him at dave.williams@gwinnettdailypost.com.