At its national meeting near Dallas this week, the Boy Scouts of America should lift its prohibition on gay members and Scout leaders — not just out of a spirit of fairness and equality, but for the good of the organization itself.
The national organization confirmed last week that it finally may allow the local churches and civic groups that sponsor Cub Scout packs, Boy Scout troops, and Venturing crews to devise their own policies on the issue. In a statement Monday, the BSA said the the potential change eliminates “any national policy regarding sexual orientation,” and that the Scouts “would not, under any circumstances, dictate a position to units, members, or parents.” The BSA’s strong ties to Mormon, Southern Baptist, Catholic, and other conservative churches make an outright ban on anti-gay discrimination unlikely for some time.
But the new approach under consideration by the BSA looks, for now, like a measured middle ground — a way of stepping back from discrimination without offending more conservative parts of the country.
Limited as the change is, it’s of deep national significance, for it not only reflects but ratifies a shift in how the public views gay and lesbian Americans. Just six months ago, the national Scouts organization reaffirmed its ban on gay members, saying it was “absolutely the best policy.” The move seemed retrograde for many reasons: The BSA offered no evidence for its view. Not long before, gay soldiers had begun serving openly in the US armed services, from which the Boy Scouts have long drawn considerable inspiration. Not long after, four states voted favorably toward gay marriage at the ballot box — an indication that much of the country didn’t share the BSA’s all too literal view of what it means to be “morally straight,” as Scouting rules put it.
Especially as 2012 wore on, it became clear that the prohibition didn’t just exclude potential members; it was hurting Scouting more broadly. One disturbing insinuation behind the policy has been that gay Scouts or Scoutmasters are likely to behave inappropriately and that the ban prevents sexual abuse. Yet when the BSA released documents in October showing that it shielded leaders who sexually abused children in years past, it also revealed its own misguided priorities; the organization appeared more intent on enforcing an old prejudice against gays than on taking strong action against actual wrongdoers.
That obtuseness helps explain why Cub Scout membership is down 30 percent from 1999, the year before the US Supreme Court upheld the BSA’s right to ban gay New Jersey Scout leader James Dale. Hundreds of thousands of Americans signed online protest petitions after Ohio Scout officials removed a lesbian mom as a den leader and after an openly gay California Scout, Ryan Andresen, was denied the highest rank of Eagle. Two high-profile CEOs who sit on the BSA’s executive board came out against the gay ban, and companies such as UPS, Merck, and Intel withdrew financial support of Scouting. Other Eagle Scouts have begun returning their badges in protest.
The need for such protests has been unfortunate, because young people benefit from the kind of outdoor and character-building activities Scouting promotes. To their credit, big-city councils in Boston and elsewhere petitioned as early as 2001 for the right to add sexual orientation to their local nondiscrimination policies. They were ultimately rejected, but the Boston Minuteman Council went ahead anyway.
As a private group, the BSA has every right to define itself as it chooses. But it should recognize, as the Boston Minuteman Council did years ago, that an organization that sees itself as part of a great American tradition must adapt as America does.