Think Twice Before Giving to the United Way

January 23, 2009

Op-ed Appearing in the Ann Arbor News

Do white supremacist groups have a right to bar Blacks and Jews from joining their organizations? Yes, because racism and anti-Semitism are core values of these private groups. Would you give money to the Klan just because it has a right to be racist?

Does the Boy Scouts of America have the right to bar gay boys and men from its membership and leadership?  Yes, because the Boy Scouts is a private organization that insisted in the Supreme Court last summer that discrimination against gays and lesbians was one of its core values.  In fact, the Boy Scouts went so far as to declare that it could not let gays and lesbians join or be leaders because they were neither “clean” nor “morally straight.”

Are you going to give money to a group that excludes kids and adults because of their sexual orientation?  This is a question that you will have to answer when the United Way of Washtenaw County asks for contributions through payroll deductions this fall

According to Newsweek, at least 44 of the most affluent United Way agencies in the country voted to stop funding the Boy Scouts because of its overt discriminatory policies.  Even the United Way of Allegan County, Michigan, has withdrawn its support of the Scouts.

Nonetheless, the Washtenaw County United Way not only funnels money to the Boy Scouts that individuals earmark for the group, but it also gave over $ 93,000 this year to the Boy Scouts out of money that workers donated to the general United Way “community fund.”   In other words, the local United Way, when deciding which non-profit groups to fund through its community fund, has determined that the Boy Scouts is one of the limited number of organizations worthy of this special support.

Supporters of the local United Way approach recently suggested in an  Ann Arbor News article that the reason the Washtenaw County Campaign has chosen to keep funding the Boy Scouts is to preserve people’s right to choose and to respect the different values of agencies that receive funding. These justifications distort the facts.

First, a person is not able to contribute to any group it wants through the United Way community fund.  Rather, the United Way always makes value judgments when choosing which select organizations will to receive money from the community fund.

For example, the local United Way has chosen to exclude Planned Parenthood from its community fund.  In fact, in the early 90's, the local United Way decided that Planned Parenthood, because of its values, was too controversial a group to even remain on the United Way’s check-off list of groups eligible for earmarked contributions.  In order to give to Planned Parenthood by payroll deduction during that time, a person had to write in the group’s name.

Second, the local United Way has a non-discrimination policy that prohibits giving community fund dollars to groups that discriminate based upon race, religion and a number of other categories.  Accordingly, a white supremacist group would not be eligible for community funds under United Way’s current policy.

Yet, the local United Way has repeatedly rejected requests to move the Boy Scouts from the list of groups that receive community funds to the list of groups that receive only earmarked contributions.  Apparently, the United Way has concluded that while it is unacceptable for the community fund to be used to fund racist groups, it is acceptable and desirable to give the money to an organization that is bigoted towards gays and lesbians.

Please think twice before giving money to the Boy Scouts or to the United Way of Washtenaw County this year.  Join the hundreds of individuals, cities, schools, churches, synagogues, parent-teacher organizations, unions, and United Way agencies nationwide who will no longer turn their backs on the harmful impact that the Boy Scouts’ homophobic policies have on our children and our community.

Instead, directly support organizations that are working to provide services in a non-discriminatory manner.  If you want to give to youth groups that are inclusive, consider the Campfire Boys and Girls, the Boys and Girls Club of America, the Girl Scouts, 4H and the YMCA.  Until the Boy Scouts and United Way of Washtenaw County change their policies, they are unworthy of our support. 

Note: Michael J. Steinberg is the legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, a member of Scouting for Equality and an Ann Arbor resident.