Big Bias Brouhaha

City rules suggest it's OK to discriminate as long as it isn't against your own kind. This is progress.

"To make a distinction in favor of or against one person or thing as compared with others" is a simple dictionary definition of discrimination. The City of Tucson, however, is now wrestling with coming up with its own meaning of the word, one that fits our politically correct times.

After July 1 the allocation of millions of dollars in city funding for many civic organizations will ride on the outcome of this effort. One possible result will be a linguistic pretzel that allows public money to go to groups that don't include everyone but cuts funds off to those that exclude anyone.

Walking this logistical tightrope is necessitated because the city, while prohibiting groups it funds from discriminating, now permits them to "target a particular age group, gender or other designated target population, provided such organizations do not deny access to any qualified individual." How far that "targeting" can go before it becomes exclusionary isn't spelled out.

What sparked this word game was a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that allowed the Boy Scouts to ban gay men from participating in their organization. Based on that, the City Council last September voted to end funding for groups that "have a policy of exclusionary discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, ancestry, sex, age, disability, national origin, sexual orientation, gender identity, familial status or marital status."

To implement that policy, the council demanded a report within 120 days on each outside organization the city funds. The Community Services department then sent a "Statement of Nondiscrimination" along with a short information sheet to over 160 city-financed groups. These included organizations that obtain city money through the United Way, outside agencies, civic event functions receiving over $10,000, and some other non-profit groups.

Survey recipients included organizations that are age-based for either the young, like the Boys and Girls Clubs of Tucson, or the elderly, such as Pima Council on Aging. Four choir groups, one each for boys, men, gay men and girls, were sent the survey. Also on the list were city committees such as the Women's Commission and the Metropolitan Tucson Commission on Urban Native American Affairs, the membership of which is limited by local law to Native Americans.

While most of those responding simply signed the statement of nondiscrimination and indicated on the information sheet they didn't "differentiate among individuals regarding their participation," some did submit qualifying comments. The Wingspan Domestic Violence Project certified it didn't discriminate, but said the organization differentiates among individuals based on sexual orientation. They specified "services offered targeted to sexual minority population," but an agency spokesperson said straight people are provided services, too.

The Jewish Community Center also listed qualifying conditions. Executive director Kenneth Light said that anyone can join the JCC and the vast majority of its activities are open to all. But, he added, some programs, such as the B'nai B'rith youth organization, are limited to members of the Jewish faith.

In addition to the city funds it obtains through the United Way, last year the Jewish Community Center was allocated $30,000 of public money to help stage the Maccabbi Games. Those sporting events were limited to 13- to 16-year-old Jewish competitors.

In Light's opinion, organizations with mission-driven parameters to serve specific populations such as women, the elderly or kids all by definition discriminate, but acceptably so. He believes the staffs of both the city and United Way are comfortable with that distinction.

A few groups have not responded to the survey yet, including the Salvation Army. What will become of them when it comes time for the City Council to divvy up tax money remains to be seen.

The Catalina Council of the Boy Scouts of America did reply to the city. They didn't sign the "Statement of Nondiscrimination," however, which means they will probably lose $29,000 in city funding. They could also be out another $22,000 from the United Way if that group follows the city's lead in enacting similar nondiscrimination regulations.

In his letter, Scout executive Louis Salute wrote, "Because the standards set forth in the City's nondiscrimination statement do not comport with established law, and subscribing to them would likely conflict with the exercise of our statutory and constitutional rights, we must return the forms unsigned."

Salute believes the Scouts are being singled out by the city because of the Supreme Court case and the high visibility it has given them. In his letter he added, "Adversaries of the BSA feel that everyone should be allowed to participate in Scouting activities. É Scouting's message is compromised when members or leaders present themselves as role models whose actions are inconsistent with the standards set in the Scout Oath and Scout Law. É Scouting's core values are not for sale and will not be compromised by the threat of economic sanctions."

Several groups, including the almost two dozen organizations that received contingency funds directly from the City Council in the last year, were not sent a nondiscrimination survey because they were considered to be one-time recipients of money. One of those groups was the Tucson Conquistadors, an organization that reportedly has no women on its board, but which obtained two allocations from the council in 2000.

While admitting this nondiscrimination effort has opened a Pandora's box, Ward 6 Republican Councilman Fred Ronstadt says, "We are asking hard questions, but that doesn't mean they shouldn't be asked."

Explaining how fine a line he thinks the city should draw when it defines discrimination, Ronstadt says, "That's the ultimate question. It should be equitable and the same standard across the board. This isn't a gays vs. Boy Scouts issue."

The council member thinks Tucson City Attorneys will propose a definition for discrimination that will accept an organization that doesn't exclude anyone within the specific population it serves. Ronstadt, however, has another approach for addressing the issue. He would like to see the city get out of the philanthropic business entirely and spend its financial resources on other priorities.

Tucson City Manager James Keene will be sending a memorandum to the council on the discrimination issue shortly. After that, according to Ronstadt, "If the memo isn't sufficient, we'll discuss it."