In today’s climate – with mainstream acceptance of homosexuals and legal gay marriage in a majority of states – can a de facto “don’t ask, don’t tell policy” still work for a private organization?
That’s the question the Boy Scouts of America are facing after its New York chapter defied the national leadership and hired an openly gay Eagle Scout to serve as a camp leader this summer.
The New York hire, which violates the Boy Scout’s official ban on “open and avowed homosexuals” as leaders, comes at particularly turbulent moment in the nation.
In Indiana and Arkansas, Religious Freedom Restoration Acts, which sought to carve out a legal public space in which religious conservatives could opt out of participating in celebrations of same-sex weddings, sparked a vociferous response this week from both top business leaders and advocates for gay and lesbian rights.
The generally conservative 105-year-old private organization, whose members pledge “to do my duty, to God and my country” with its famous oath and three-fingered salute, is mostly sponsored by faith-based organizations, many of which also restrict gay leaders. More than 70 percent of chartered Boy Scout units are sponsored by churches and other religious groups, with Mormon and Methodist churches hosting the vast majority of its packs and troops.
On Thursday, however, the Boy Scouts’ Greater New York Councils, which include a host of Catholic parish sponsors throughout the city, hired Pascal Tessier, an openly gay 18-year-old Eagle Scout, who has been outspoken in opposing the ban on adult leaders.
“We’ve had an antidiscrimination policy for a very, very long time,” said Richard Mason, a board member of the Greater New York Councils, according to The New York Times. “This young man applied for a job. We judged his application on the merits. He’s highly qualified. We said yes to him irrespective of his sexual orientation.”
Last year, the national organization lifted the ban on openly gay Scouts after years of debate. Dedicated to patriotism, as well as the moral, physical, and religious and spiritual development of its youth, the Boy Scouts continue to officially ban atheists, agnostics, and non-believers from its ranks on all levels.
But the New York hire of Mr. Tessier not only issued yet another challenge to the organization’s traditional restrictions on openly gay leaders, it also laid bare the growing divisions among the nation’s religious institutions over the status of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people among their ranks.
Last month, the Presbyterian Church, USA, which sponsors thousands of Boy Scout units, voted to redefine its traditional understanding of marriage to include same-sex couples. And the Mormon Church – which hosts the largest number of Scout units by far, and which continues to maintain a traditional understanding of marriage and restricts the full participation of gay and lesbian members in church activities and leadership – nevertheless supported extended legal rights for LGBT people as it, too, sought to bolster religious freedoms and protect its traditional self-understanding and theological positions.
After the Scouts changed their policy about the participation of openly gay youth, it went on to hire former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who noted at the time that the debates over the issue had left many in the organization “divided, distracted and defensive.”
“In all candor,” Mr. Gates said last year, “I would have supported going further, as I did in opening the way for gays to serve in CIA and in the military.”
Still, he said the Scouts “must put this issue behind us and move forward,” because the issue “would irreparably fracture and perhaps even provoke a formal, permanent split in this movement — with the high likelihood neither side would subsequently survive on its own.”
The Scouts do not “proactively inquire” about the sexual orientation of its members, however, and its policy has been compared to the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy once instituted by the US branches of the military – and which Gates helped to dismantle after Congress ended the official ban on gays in the military.
Responding to the New York hire, Deron Smith, communications director for the national organization, said its ban of gay adult leaders and employees remained the same. “While we were only recently made aware of this issue, we are looking into the matter,” he said in a statement.
Despite saying that the hire of Tessier was based on qualification and merits, the New York chapter is continuing to press the issue, hoping to completely lift the Boy Scout’s ban.
“We all started this with the idea that the best resolution of this was a resolution based on conciliation and agreement,” said David Boies, the legendary attorney who has been involved in a number of high profile gay rights cases, and who is currently advising Tessier.
“It is certainly a remarkable development because we now have the first openly gay scout leader employed by the Boy Scouts, he added, according to the Associated Press. “We hope that is the beginning of the end, if you will, of the policy nationwide.”