The headline, late last week, sounded like good news: the leadership of the Boy Scouts of America was recommending to its governing board that it no longer bar openly gay young people from participating in Scouting. There are almost 2.7 million Boy Scouts in the United States between the ages of seven and twenty-one. Then came the other part of the recommendation: that the Scouts continue its ban on openly gay adults serving as volunteers. There are slightly over a million adults who work in local organizations.
The logic behind the distinction was not clear. The Scouts said that the new policy was based upon extensive polling of its membership as well as of its sponsors and others involved in Scouting. “While perspectives and opinions vary significantly, parents, adults in the Scouting community, and teens alike tend to agree that youth should not be denied the benefits of Scouting,” a Boy Scout statement read, adding that the new rule “reinforces that Scouting is a youth program, and any sexual conduct, whether heterosexual or homosexual, by youth of Scouting age is contrary to the virtues of Scouting.”
But did this mean that the recommendation was merely a result of the survey—not in any way based upon an evaluation of what would be best overall policy position for the organization, its members, potential scouts, or the general public? While the B.S.A. is a private organization, it is “chartered” by Congress and has traditionally occupied a unique space in the public realm. For example, the current President of the United States, Barack Obama, serves as the honorary chairman of the organization, as has every President since the Boy Scouts’ founding in 1910, when William Howard Taft agreed to serve as the first honorary president.
For an organization whose mission is preparing “young people to make ethical and moral choices over their lifetime,” it was hard to see how the decision was consistent with its core beliefs. The Scouts’ statement acknowledged that it was “extremely difficult to accurately quantify the potential impact of maintaining or changing the current policy.” But basing the new rule on survey research hardly seems consistent with fostering ethical and moral decision-making. (The proposal will be voted on by the fourteen hundred members of the organization’s governing council in mid-May.)
How could the Boys Scouts prohibit one kind of discrimination against gay people, but allow another? The organization sought to portray the proposal as a compromise aimed at acknowledging changing attitudes while at the same time showing respect for the views of its religiously-based core fundraising constituency. In fact, it was a political compromise aimed at satisfying two sets of conflicting interests: those of corporate sponsors, some of whom wanted a change in the discriminatory policy, and of the Catholic and Mormon Church hierarchies, who sponsor and fund much of the Boy Scouts’ activities.
But like many compromises on matters of principle, it seems unlikely to work. Gay-rights groups said it did not go far enough, while Tony Perkins, the president of the Family Research Council, called the proposed policy, accurately, “incoherent.” Perkins continued, “The proposal says, in essence, that homosexuality is morally acceptable until a boy turns 18—then, when he comes of age, he’s removed from the Scouts.” (This points to a gray area: Boy Scouting is for boys eleven to seventeen years of age, although the organization runs programs that are available for young people up to the age of twenty-one; it doesn’t necessarily seem that the ban, which is on adult volunteers, would apply to those participants.)
In fact, in denying adults (even young adults) the opportunity to participate as Scout leaders, the new policy reinforces long disproven misconceptions that adult gays and lesbians are child predators or otherwise immoral, or would recruit children into homosexuality. This even though, according to the Associated Press, the Scouts “consulted four experts in the field of child sex abuse prevention. The four conveyed a ‘nearly universal opinion’ within their field that homosexuality is not a risk factor for the sexual abuse of children.”
In 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Boy Scouts of America v. Dale, by a vote of 5 to 4, that the Scouts could legally discriminate against gays because as a private organization they had a constitutional right to freedom of association so long as opposition to homosexuality was part of their core “expressive message.” In that context, the new treatment of gay youth represents a turning point. The position the Scouts had fought for and maintained through almost a decade of contested litigation, all the way to the Supreme Court, will be abandoned. But its new position is at best muddled, and horribly out of sync. What kind of “expressive message” does it send to a young gay Scout when the organization tells him that it will tolerate him while he is a child but, because of his orientation, he is ineligible to participate as he gets older, presumably because he is seen as unfit or unsafe to be around children? Is an organization centered on leadership leading some Scouts away from public life? Is it telling them to be prepared to yield to other peoples’ fears?