The Boy Scouts of America announced Tuesday that it was affirming, after a secret two-year review, its ban on gay members. The decision elicited widespread criticism and raised questions about whether the world’s largest youth organization was out of step with the times – and its own principles.
Everyone from scout leaders to legal analysts pointed to the cultural currents moving toward more inclusion of gays in US society, from President Obama’s announcement that he now personally supports gay marriage, to the end of the US military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, to the Episcopal church’s decision to bless same-sex unions.
The Boy Scouts of America (BSA) is on the wrong side of history on this issue and will “wither away” if it sticks to this policy, says David Cohen, professor at the Earle Mack School of Law at Drexel University in Philadelphia.
Pointing to the 2000 Supreme Court decision that upheld the private group’s right to choose its members, he adds via e-mail, “just because the Supreme Court has said the Boy Scouts are allowed to have this policy does not mean that it is just or that it is consistent with basic human compassion.”
In its statement announcing the decision to continue the ban on both gay scouts and leaders, the Texas-based Boy Scouts of America (BSA) cited support from parents and said the decision was the result of a two-year review by a panel that represented “a diversity of perspectives and opinions."
Further, the statement, which did not identify the panel members, said, "the review included forthright and candid conversation and extensive research and evaluations – both from within Scouting and from outside of the organization."
But group members say the move flies in the face of the organization’s own stated values.
“It is reprehensible that BSA would exclude gays,” says Michael Reinemer, a current Scout leader and former Boy Scout who lives in Annandale, Va. While the Boy Scouts is a private organization, he says, “it is also an American institution that develops character. Its highest level of leadership training (Wood Badge) requires involvement in bringing diversity to your scout unit.”
While the Boy Scouts may have the right to discriminate, the public also has the right to choose other options for young boys, says Professor Cohen, adding, “as each successive public opinion poll shows, Americans are not comfortable with bigotry against lesbian and gay individuals. Continuing this policy is a recipe for the Boy Scouts to wither away and be remembered as a bigoted organization that refused to change with the times.”
The BSA, however, said support from parents was an important reason for keeping the policy.
"The vast majority of the parents of youth we serve value their right to address issues of same-sex orientation within their family, with spiritual advisers and at the appropriate time and in the right setting," Boy Scouts chief executive Bob Mazzuca said in a statement.
"We fully understand that no single policy will accommodate the many diverse views among our membership or society."
The BSA leadership, however, has grown more conservative and does not fully reflect the larger membership, says Northwestern University law professor Andrew Koppelman.
Professor Koppelman, coauthor of “A Right to Discriminate? How the Case of Boy Scouts of America v. James Dale Warped the Law of Free Association,” commends the BSA, noting that it does “important and valuable work in inner cities,” but adds that the leadership is not representative of those troops in major urban areas, such as Chicago, New York and Los Angeles.
The group was not always so conservative, he says, pointing to the aggressive anti-prejudicial moves that mark the history of this iconic, century-old entity.
Scout troops in the Deep South took in African-American members during the years of official segregation laws when no other institutions were doing so. Even earlier in its history, he points out, the BSA was a leader in welcoming Jewish and Catholic members. “And this was during an era early in the last century when there was strong prejudice against both those groups,” he says.
This turn away from inclusive policies coincides with what Koppleman points to as the increasing influence of religious sponsors on the BSA. He notes that in 1995 roughly 40 percent of scout troops were sponsored by religious groups, but by 2001, that number had grown to 62 percent.
One group in particular, the Mormon Church, has a strong influence within the organization, he points out, primarily because the church requires Boy Scout participation for members of its own youth ministry. While Mormons represent roughly two percent of the US population, he adds, they make up 12 percent of the Boy Scouts, and Mormon churches sponsor some 23 percent of BSA troops.
The group’s decision to adopt a divisive policy is particularly unfortunate for troops in hard-hit inner cities, points out Koppelman.
“This policy makes it much harder to raise funds for the organization,” he says, which is particularly tragic for troops doing fine work with young boys in areas with few other resources. “This decision would not matter so much if the Boy Scouts were not such an important group in so many ways,” he adds.