WASHINGTON (AP) - The Senate voted Thursday to withhold federal funds from school districts that deny use of their facilities to the Boy Scouts because of the organization's exclusion of homosexuals. The vote was 52-48. The amendment to a major education bill was offered by Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., in response to a Supreme Court ruling last year. The court ruled that the Boy Scouts' national policy banning gay members and leaders is constitutional, citing the right to freedom of association granted to private groups. A bill similar to the Senate provision passed the House last month. Helms said his amendment was meant to combat ``the organized lesbians and homosexuals in this country of ours.'' Democrats angrily denounced it, saying it would bind the hands of school boards trying to juggle access and scout sponsorship with their states' anti-discrimination laws. ``Think of the situation we are creating here,'' said Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill. ``Imagine sitting on a school board, with no pay, under these circumstances.... I have to tell you: As I consider this amendment, it is a complete disaster.'' The vote came after several hours of debate over the Boy Scouts' mission and history, complete with senators on both sides of the aisle fondly recalling their scouting days. Several Republicans stood to read or recite the Boy Scout oath. ``I have never been prouder in my entire political life than I am to stand here today with Senator Jesse Helms and support this amendment,'' said Sen. Bob Smith, R-N.H.
Democrats spoke in bitter opposition to the amendment, saying it was redundant in light of the Supreme Court's access ruling. ``I believe this amendment is unnecessarily gratuitous,'' said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. ``It's hurtful to a group of people - it divides us again in this country.'' Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota said the amendment would force school districts to make ``a terrible choice.'' ``They could either disregard their own conscience or they could follow their conscience and lose millions of dollars that their schools and their children need,'' he said. ``We believe in principled compromise, but we cannot compromise on the fundamental issues of civil rights.'' According to Boy Scouts of America Web site, about 3.4 million children were enrolled as Boy Scouts in 2000, a 1.2 percent drop from 1999. Earlier Thursday, the Senate tentatively refused to require schools to discipline special education students in the same fashion as other pupils, voting 50-50. Shortly after the vote, Senate leaders agreed to reconsider the issue later in the day. Republicans were discussing whether to ask Vice President Dick Cheney to come to the Capitol to break a tie if needed on a second vote. At issue is an amendment by Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., that would require schools and school districts to implement uniform discipline policies for all children, regardless of whether they are disabled or receiving federal special educational funds. Sessions and other Republicans complained that in some cases, disabled students aren't punished as severely as others. ``If a child in a wheelchair sells dope, should they be treated any differently than any other child who sells dope?'' he asked. Democrats said the measure would strip valuable protections from some disabled students. ``We're not going to march backward,'' said Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass. ``This is a major, major retreat.''
The Senate earlier Thursday rejected an amendment by Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, that would have let schools take the child's disability into account when determining punishment - if, for instance, a deaf child misbehaved because he or she couldn't understand a lesson in class.