WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court cleared the way Monday for state and local governments to enforce gay-rights laws by barring the Boy Scouts of America from government benefits because of its ban on homosexual members or leaders.

The court had ruled four years ago that states or cities may not force the Scouts to admit gays into their ranks, but the youth organization had sought protection against what it considers indirect, official pressure to change its policy.

In an appeal the Supreme Court refused to hear, the Scouts argued that it is unconstitutional discrimination for Connecticut to exclude the organization from an annual charity fund-raising drive among state employees. The Scouts said the state was singling it out for official "punishment" based on its moral opposition to homosexuality.

That court's action, which came without explanation, left undisturbed a ruling last July by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, based in New York City, that Connecticut was constitutionally justified in refusing to be a partner with the Scouts in the charity drive because its participation would violate the state gay rights law. The Scouts had taken part in the drive for 30 years.

The appeals court ruling, the Scouts' appeal argued, "licenses state and local governments to punish the Boy Scouts for their views" and threatens all private groups' right to "maintain and adhere to their convictions on moral or religious issues without being selected for disfavored treatment at the hands of government."

The appeal noted that the Scouts have been excluded from using a public campground in San Diego, a city boating marina in Berkeley, Calif., and some school buildings in Florida — actions that the organization said were part of a spreading campaign to punish it and other groups because of their views on homosexuality.

The Scouts last week picked up the Bush administration's support for its lower court challenge to the ban on its use of the San Diego campground.

After refusing to hear the Scouts case, the court released a broad new criminal law ruling, significantly strengthening the constitutional right of an accused person to confront and question his accusers under the Sixth Amendment.

The ruling deals with the frequent situation where prosecutors are unable to produce a witness for trial, but have an earlier statement by that witness implicating the accused.

In a 1980 ruling, the Supreme Court had decided that those statements could be put before the jury, if the judge found them to be reliable, even though the accused never had a chance to challenge the statement, and the witness could not be questioned about it.

Overruling that decision Monday, the justices decided by a 7-to-2 vote that, from now on, a damaging statement made by a witness who cannot appear at the trial will not be allowed as evidence unless the accused had a chance to challenge it at the time it was made.

The opinion, written by Justice Antonin Scalia, said that the court was laying down the new rule for pre-trial testimony given in a statement to police, or as testimony before a grand jury, at a previous trial, or at a preliminary hearing. Scalia said the court was not spelling out what other kinds of testimony would also be excluded, leaving that to be decided on a case-by-case basis.

The right to confront one's accusers, Scalia said, is a long-standing common law protection that can be satisfied only if the right to confront an accuser has been genuinely exercised.

"Dispensing with confrontation because testimony is obviously reliable is akin to dispensing with jury trial because a defendant is obviously guilty," he wrote.

The ruling dealt with comments that an Olympia, Wash., man's wife made to police about her husband's stabbing of another man.

The woman did not appear at trial because of a rule against spouses testifying against each other.

Michael Crawford had used a self-defense argument at his trial, contending that he stabbed the victim after the other man had appeared to be pulling out a weapon. But the statement his wife, Sylvia, made to police suggested the victim did not reach for a weapon before he was stabbed.

The Washington Supreme Court allowed the wife's testimony as evidence, finding it to be reliable. The Supreme Court, however, sent the case back to state courts to reconsider, because the husband had not had a chance to challenge the statement when it was given to police.

Scalia's opinion was supported by Justices Stephen G. Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Anthony M. Kennedy, David H. Souter, John Paul Stevens, and Clarence Thomas.

Dissenting were Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.

The Supreme Court also Monday:

Ruled 9-0 that while people pleading guilty to crimes are entitled to an attorney, judges don't have to warn them of the disadvantages of not seeing a lawyer.

Ruled that prosecutors were wrong to use a wife's taped statement to police at her husband's trial. The court unanimously overturned the man's conviction for assaulting an acquaintance he claimed tried to rape his wife.

Asked the Bush administration for its views on a securities fraud lawsuit filed by investors accusing a drug company of improperly inflating its stock prices.


Contributing: Associated Press.