It was disappointing Wednesday when the executive board of the Boy Scouts of America delayed a decision to let local troops make their own decisions on whether to allow openly gay participants. Religious conservatives, who hold significant sway in the organization, unleashed a firestorm of protest when it became clear last week that the board might lift its national ban on gay Scouts. Still, the delay also came with a commitment to hold a definitive vote on the policy at the BSA’s national meeting in May. So the 103-year-old organization has forced a choice upon itself: Either it will emerge from this debate with a commitment to advancing a sense of community in an increasingly diverse America, or behave like an intolerant relic of the past.
The next three and a half months will be important. The BSA must find a way to temper the intolerance of the religious right, which claims, against all evidence, that allowing a gay member of a troop in Arlington, Mass., would somehow damage troop cohesion in Arlington, Texas, or Arlington, Va. But the stance of gay-rights advocates, some of whom rejected last week’s move and say they will not be satisfied with anything except a nationally binding nondiscrimination policy, also complicates efforts by BSA leaders to steer the organization toward a more welcoming posture.
The best thing that could happen now is for opponents of the ban to make their sentiments clear and for voting members of the BSA to listen to the great middle of Scouting — and of America. A Quinnipiac University poll this week found that 55 percent of Americans want the Scout gay ban to end; only 33 percent support it. Tellingly, the same poll also found that only half of former Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts had a child in Scouting. That makes the BSA’s vote a race against time. The group’s failure to respond to a changing society threatens its role in building the character of American youth.