Case Overview

Legal Principle at Issue

Does New Jersey’s public accommodation law violate the free speech and freedom of association rights of the Boy Scouts of America, a private group, by requiring it to admit a gay scoutmaster?


Reversed and remanded. The Boy Scouts of America could not be compelled to admit a gay scoutmaster.


Eagle Scout James Dale became an assistant scoutmaster in 1989. While attending Rutgers University, Dale revealed his sexual orientation during a speech in his capacity as co-president of the university’s Lesbian/Gay Alliance group. In July 1990, scouting authorities sent Dale a letter, severing all ties with him. When Dale wrote to inquire about the reason, they said the grounds for revoking the membership “are the standards for leadership established by the Boy Scouts of America, which specifically forbid membership to homosexuals.” Dale sued in state court, saying the Boy Scouts violated a state law that prevents places of public accommodation from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation. After a trial court judge ruled in favor of the Scouts in 1995, both the Superior Court of New Jersey and the Supreme Court of New Jersey ruled in favor of Dale. The Boy Scouts appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States.

Importance of Case

The Court held that a private organization is allowed, under certain criteria, to exclude a person from membership through its First Amendment right of freedom of association, even if there are existing state anti-discrimination laws. It noted that the freedom of association includes the freedom not to associate with certain individuals and ideas. Though the First Amendment protects free-association rights, the freedom of association is not absolute. In order to qualify for free-association protection, a group must engage in some form of expressive association that could be impaired by the admission of certain individuals.

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