The Boy Scouts of America may be headed for a historic moment on Thursday. Some 1,400 members from around the country are gathering in Grapevine, Texas, just outside of Dallas, to cast votes on whether to allow openly gay scouts.
But even as the largest youth group in the nation, founded 103 years ago, ponders whether to change a policy that some see as an anachronism in a society that is increasingly accepting of homosexuality, the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) continues to face criticism from both sides.
The proposal to include gays does not include scout leaders. Those who support a more open policy say the proposal does not go far enough, while opponents say the change could ruin a national youth institution by putting too much emphasis on sexuality.
Whichever way the ballots go on Thursday, most observers say the iconic boys’ organization is at a crossroads.
The Boy Scouts risk becoming an irrelevant organization, says Robert Volk, director of the Legal Writing and Appellate Advocacy Program at Boston University’s School of Law. Public opinion is changing, he says, and the BSA needs to keep pace.
“Witness the upsurge in support for same sex marriage,” he says via e-mail. The BSA risks becoming “the refuge of a fringe,” he adds.
This issue puts the BSA in the crosshairs of history, agrees fellow BU scholar and law professor Linda McClain.
The BSA not only is the country’s largest youth organization, but it is also the only organization to enjoy a Congressional Charter, she notes.
“It has a special status in the nation’s history,” she says via e-mail. The exclusion of gay scouts and leaders, on grounds that homosexuality conflicts with the Scouts’ fundamental values of being “morally straight” and “clean” – which the US Supreme Court upheld in BSA v. Dale in 2000 – “seems in tension with its history of stressing that it is an inclusive, nonsectarian organization, open to boys of all creeds, races, and classes,” she adds.
In a 2012 USA Today/Gallup national poll, however, fewer than half the respondents said they supported openly gay scout leaders, a view reflected by a coalition of church leaders who filed a petition in anticipation of the May 23 vote. The appeal opposes the policy change. Those signing the petition include representatives of churches with more than 20 million members, including the Southern Baptist Convention, Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, and the Anglican Church in North America, as well as theologians such as Southern Baptist Albert Mohler, United Methodist Thomas Oden, and Presbyterian Luder Whitlock.
“We strongly support the Boy Scouts of America current prohibition on open homosexuality and retaining it without revision,” their appeal reads. The signers note that nearly 70 percent of BSA troops are hosted by churches and religious institutions.
“Upholding traditional morality is vital for sustaining this partnership, for protecting Scout members, and for ensuring BSA has a strong future,” the statement says.
However, simple arithmetic suggests the BSA needs to do something if it wishes to celebrate its bicentennial. A Boston Globe article in advance of the group’s 2010 centennial noted that between 1998 and 2009, membership slid from 3.3 million to 2.7 million.
Speaking by phone en route to Dallas to cast his vote, Alan Snyder, chairman of the board for the Western Los Angeles County Boy Scout Council, says the resolution is a step in the right direction but does not go far enough.
“The country has moved toward a more open stance in one of the most dramatic shifts of public opinion ever,” he says. His own organization, the 14th largest in the country representing some 5,000 volunteers, undertook an 18-month dialogue. The discussion culminated with a nearly unanimous vote of the 64 board members, says Mr. Snyder.
The key point, he says, “is that sexuality does not have a place in the Boy Scouts activity, whether it is homosexual or heterosexual.” The Boy Scouts, he adds, “is about teaching kids character, ethics, and leadership.”
Calling this issue one of the most complex in its history, the BSA noted in an e-mail to the Monitor that it does not foresee tackling the status of scout leaders.
“The executive committee unanimously believes this is the best resolution,” the e-mail says, continuing, “it is the option that did not, in some way, prevent kids who sincerely want to be a part of Scouting from experiencing this life-changing program, and to remain true to the long-standing virtues of Scouting.”