Boy Scouts of America v. Dale

530 U.S. 640 (2000)

Quick Summary

Boy Scouts of America (defendant) and James Dale (plaintiff) became embroiled in a legal dispute after Dale’s membership was terminated due to his sexual orientation. The conflict arose from the intersection of New Jersey’s anti-discrimination laws and the Boy Scouts’ claim of First Amendment expressive association rights.

After progressing through various levels of New Jersey courts, the case reached the United States Supreme Court. The core issue was whether enforcing a state law against a private organization infringed upon constitutional freedoms. Ultimately, the Supreme Court sided with the Boy Scouts, citing First Amendment protections.

Facts of the Case

The Boy Scouts of America (defendant), a private organization dedicated to instilling its values in young people, maintains that homosexual conduct is not aligned with its ideals. James Dale (plaintiff), an accomplished former Eagle Scout and assistant scoutmaster, had his adult membership revoked when the organization discovered he was openly gay and a gay rights advocate.

Dale challenged this decision, claiming the Boy Scouts violated New Jersey’s public accommodations law, which prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Dale’s legal action was initially successful in the New Jersey courts, prompting the Boy Scouts to escalate the matter to the United States Supreme Court. The case hinged on the tension between state anti-discrimination laws and the First Amendment rights of a private organization to expressive association.

Procedural Posture and History

  1. Dale sued the Boy Scouts in New Jersey Superior Court, alleging violation of public accommodations law.
  2. The Superior Court granted summary judgment to the Boy Scouts.
  3. The Appellate Division reversed, except for Dale’s common-law claim, and remanded.
  4. The New Jersey Supreme Court affirmed the Appellate Division’s decision.
  5. The Boy Scouts appealed to the United States Supreme Court.

I.R.A.C. Format


Whether applying New Jersey’s public accommodations law to require the Boy Scouts to readmit Dale infringes on the Boy Scouts’ First Amendment right of expressive association.

Rule of Law

Private organizations have a First Amendment right to expressive association, which allows them to set their own membership standards to maintain their expression, unless there is a compelling state interest that justifies intervention.

Reasoning and Analysis

The Supreme Court closely examined the Boy Scouts’ stated values and mission, which do not explicitly mention sexuality but include terms like ‘morally straight’ and ‘clean.’ Accepting that the Boy Scouts sincerely regards homosexual conduct as incompatible with these values, the Court determined that forcing the group to include Dale would significantly alter its message.

The presence of an openly gay leader would implicitly endorse a view contrary to the organization’s beliefs. In addressing the state’s interest in anti-discrimination, the Court found that while public accommodations laws serve a vital role in eliminating discrimination, they must not infringe upon First Amendment freedoms. The Court thus concluded that compelling the Boy Scouts to accept Dale would violate their right to expressive association.


The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Boy Scouts, holding that New Jersey’s public accommodations law, as applied to this case, violates the First Amendment by imposing an undue burden on the Boy Scouts’ expressive association rights.

Dissenting Opinions

Justice Stevens authored a dissenting opinion, joined by Justices Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer, arguing against the majority’s view and emphasizing that Dale’s inclusion would not significantly impact the Boy Scouts’ mission or message.

Key Takeaways

  1. The First Amendment right to expressive association allows private organizations to determine membership based on shared values.
  2. State anti-discrimination laws must not impose on First Amendment freedoms unless there is a compelling state interest that necessitates such action.
  3. The Supreme Court may independently review facts in First Amendment cases to prevent unlawful intrusion into free expression.

Relevant FAQs of this case

What are the limits of a private organization's right to expressive association?

The limits reside in balancing the organization’s First Amendment rights against the state’s interests, such as anti-discrimination laws. The rights to expressive association allow private organizations to exclude individuals when their presence affects the group’s ability to advocate public or private viewpoints. However, this right isn’t absolute; it can be overridden when there is a compelling state interest that justifies such action and the means of achieving it are narrowly tailored.

  • For example: A private club that advocates for environmental conservation may decline membership to a prominent advocate for industrial expansion if they believe it hinders their environmental message.

How can a state justify infringing upon a private organization's First Amendment right to expressive association?

To justify infringing upon an organization’s expressive association, the state must demonstrate a compelling interest that is paramount, such as enforcing equality and preventing discrimination. Even then, such infringement must be narrowly tailored using the least restrictive means to achieve the interest without unnecessary abridgment of constitutional freedoms.

  • For example: A law preventing racial discrimination in private clubs might be justified since it pursues the compelling state interest of eradicating systemic racism, which outweighs the club’s selective membership policies.

Under what circumstances might a court find that an individual’s exclusion from a private organization does not violate anti-discrimination laws?

A court might find exclusion justified if an individual’s presence significantly affects the organization’s ability to advocate its intended viewpoints or purposes. This considers whether the person’s conduct is fundamentally at odds with the mission and collective expression of the group, which might include oppositional advocacy or behaviors misaligned with organizational values.

  • For example: A religious group may exclude someone whose behaviors and expressed beliefs contradict the core tenets of their faith, as forced inclusion could alter the group’s expressive dynamic.


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