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Link with Scouts draws fire

By Lara Brenckle

BELLEFONTE - The national controversy swirling around the Boy Scouts of America's admissions policies came home Tuesday to Centre County.

During the public hour of Tuesday's Board of Commissioners meeting, Lorie Polansky, director of the Western Pennsylvania region of American Atheists Inc., read a statement objecting to what she said is the county Sheriff's Office's collaboration with the Boy Scouts to form what is known as a venturing crew. The group teaches 14-to-21-year-olds with an interest in law enforcement the basics of search and rescue and public safety.

Polansky, who is based in Altoona, argued the Boy Scouts discriminate by not allowing atheists or gay people to be a part of their group. The Sheriff's Office is practicing de facto discrimination by associating itself with them, she said. In a letter sent to the sheriff in April, Polansky threatened legal action if the association continued.

But Tony Ghaffari, leader of Venturing Crew #911, said the Sheriff's office has no association with the group.

Ghaffari, reached after the commissioners' meeting, said Sheriff Denny Nau lent the "name and credibility" of the Sheriff's Office to Centre Search and Rescue when that group organized three years ago.

A year later, Centre Search and Rescue became a nonprofit organization with no connection to the sheriff's office, except that Nau looks favorably on its endeavors, Ghaffari said.

In March, Centre Search and Rescue and the Boy Scouts decided to organize Venturing Crew, said Ghaffari.

The Boy Scouts of America Venturing program was created in 1998. It provides high adventure, religious and outdoor exploring.

Nau sits on the executive board of the Juniata Council of the Boy Scouts of America, but is not involved in the Venturing Crew, and has not attended its meetings or lent any staff to the group, Ghaffari said.

"He supports both the Search and Rescue and the Boy Scouts as an individual, not as an office," Ghaffari said.

The group receives no federal, state or county money, and Nau denies that the Venturing Crew discriminates.

Polansky told reporters one Centre County teen, who is an atheist, has complained to her about the group's policies.

Nau said he was unaware of the accusation and said he would like to speak to anyone who had a problem with the group.

When asked if he knew of any gays or atheists in the recently formed club -- it has only held two meetings -- he said he had no idea.

"I don't ask if they're gay or atheist," Nau said. "We do not discriminate, me as an individual, my staff or anyone on the search and rescue."

Polansky said she had received no response from Nau to her April letter. Nau said he felt no need to respond.

"The first line, 'It has been brought to my attention that your office is partnering with Boy Scouts of America in the formation of a local Venturing Crew, which is exclusive of gays and atheists,' is an error," Nau said. "(The threat of a lawsuit) is like someone trying to back you into a corner."

Nau said he consulted his solicitor and believes he is "solidly on firm ground." He has no plans to disassociate himself from either the Boy Scouts or to advocate that the group abandon the Venturing program.

No teen is asked about religious affiliation or sexual orientation when they join, Nau said.

By joining the Venturing Crew, teens automatically become a member of the Boy Scouts and are subject to its rules, Ghaffari said. Both Venturing and Explorer posts are open to boys and girls.

Ghaffari said if teens have problems with the Venturing Crew's affiliation, they are welcome to join the Centre Search and Rescue. There are no limitations on membership, other than participants be 16 and in good health, he said.

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