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United Way loosens its bias policy: Revision will allow all groups within law to apply for money

By Charles Levin,
September 24, 2004

United Way of Ventura County on Thursday revised its two-year-old policy on discrimination, allowing it to give money to such groups as the Boy Scouts of America.

United Way had adopted a tough anti-discrimination stance in 2001, effectively cutting off contributions to the Ventura County Council, Boy Scouts of America. The Scouts will not accept homosexuals in leadership positions.

United Way's board of directors voted unanimously to adopt the new policy, which allows funding of any organization that doesn't violate state or federal discrimination laws, a news release said. Twenty-four of United Way's 33 board members cast votes, President and CEO David Smith said Thursday.

This means the Scouts can apply for funds, Smith said. But the group would still be competing with dozens of other nonprofit groups for a shrinking pot of money and be subject to the same review process for approval, Smith said.

Tim Thomton, a Scout executive with the Ventura County Council, declined to comment Thursday, saying he needed more information about United Way's decision.

Officials from the Rainbow Alliance, which represents gays and lesbians in Ventura County, were unavailable for comment.

The board's action comes after United Way reported last month it would cut charitable funding by 40 percent after it fell nearly $1 million short in its 2003-04 fund-raising drive. United Way is the county's major collector and donor to other nonprofit groups.

The board's decision also comes after the Supreme Court in March refused to hear an appeal from the Boy Scouts over what the organization said was discrimination because of its policy against hiring gays.

The high court four years ago upheld the Scouts' ban on homosexual leaders. In March, the Scouts wanted the court to hear a case from Connecticut, where officials moved to drop the group from a list of charities that receive donations through a state employee payroll-deduction plan. The Scouts alleged that was unconstitutional discrimination, but the Supreme Court declined to hear the case.

Neither of those issues, however, prompted Thursday's decision, Smith said. Instead, board members had taken it up as part of an ongoing review of "policies, procedures and guidelines," he said.

"Our counsel felt the previous policy did not reflect today's legal standards. These nondiscrimination issues have changed significantly over the last few years, and we felt it was an appropriate time to address that policy."

The new United Way policy requires groups seeking money to "provide services and offer volunteer and employment opportunities without unlawfully discriminating on the basis of any characteristic protected by
state or federal law," according to a news release.

The release doesn't mention the Scouts. But because the courts have upheld the Scouts' policy barring the hiring of gays, it means the group is not violating discrimination laws.

Smith said a lawsuit filed by Denny and Allyson Weinberg of Camarillo also did not influence the board's decision. The Weinbergs sued United Way, alleging it spent more of its donations than promised on administrative expenses and did not disclose the anti-discrimination policy to fund-raisers and charitable groups.

A new round of settlement discussions began this week with United Way officials, partly based on "them making this change," said Denny Weinberg, an executive vice president with WellPoint Health Network.

"I think the changing of the policy this morning is an attempt for them to see the facts of this case differently," he said. "The action is a victory for the residents of Ventura County."

Glenn Dickinson, United Way's attorney, disagreed, saying the board had considered reviewing the policy in August, long before the current settlement talks were scheduled.

Dickinson said he found Weinberg's comments "very troubling."

"It's very discouraging that he's trying to steal a public relations victory and take credit for an action that he doesn't deserve any credit for," Dickinson said. "This casts a very serious cloud over the settlement discussions which have taken place."

No decision was reached at the end of Thursday's talks, which will resume in a few weeks, Weinberg said.

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