Having spent most of my childhood as a Boy Scout, I can still recite the Boy Scout Law from memory: A Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent. There are a lot of positive things that I can say about the program, starting with the leadership experience that I obtained that benefits me in my work life today. The clearly set path of advancement helped increased my confidence and proved the value of hard work. Most importantly, I made friends that I keep in touch with to this day.
Like all organizations, the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) has had its share of missteps. The one that sticks in my mind the most was the case of Catherine "Kay" Pollard. When the local Scout troop could not find a Scoutmaster, Kay stepped up. She led this troop for two years until the National organization decided that the boys needed a male role model. The troop disbanded when one could not be found. In 1988, the BSA finally decided that a female leader was better than no leader at all and reversed its ban. (1)
Last week, the BSA finally took a step towards eliminating another policy that I have disagreed with. Sometime in the near future, the national executive board is expected to eliminate a national policy on sexual orientation. Instead, the local “chartered organizations that oversee and deliver Scouting would accept membership and select leaders consistent with each organization’s mission, principles, or religious beliefs.” (2) This will not eliminate discrimination in the entire organization, but at least gives boys who are either gay or have a parent or parents who are gay the opportunity to find a troop that will accept them.
The ban that is currently in place was based on the premise that “homosexual conduct is inconsistent with the obligations in the Scout Oath and Law to be morally straight and clean in thought, word, and deed.”(3) It affected not only adult leaders, but the scouts themselves. They wrapped this policy in the safety of the majority by stating that their “position with respect to homosexual conduct accords with the moral positions of many millions of Americans and with religious denominations to which a majority of Americans belong.”(4)
While there are religious denominations that do view homosexuality as a sin, this condemnation is not universal. The Unitarian and Episcopalian are two Christian churches that welcome members of the LGBT community.(5) While the law requires a Scout to be reverent and the Scout Oath requires a “duty to God,” they do not specify a specific religion. However, the organizations rules attempt to circumvent this by banning homosexuals even if the Scout follows a religion that does not have that ban.
Applying the law of being clean only to ban homosexual sexual activity is also hypocritical. The average American teenager loses his or her virginity at 17, with 70% having had sex by the time they are 19.(6) While the Scouting program may persuade some Scouts to wait longer, the chances are that not all Boy Scouts are virgins. While having heterosexual sex would also be considered “unclean,” it would not disqualify a Scout from the program.
The Scout Law also commands a Scout to be honest. However, a policy that equated to a version of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” for boys encouraged Scouts to be dishonest. There is strong scientific evidence “ that sexual orientation in men has a genetic cause.”(7) If this is the case, then the BSA is asking boys to hide who they are. Furthermore, if homosexuality is not a choice, then banning homosexuals would be no different than banning people based on their skin color.
This policy also encourages Scouts to break the first law of being Trustworthy. A Scout who was in danger of being outed might take steps to hide his orientation. This might include dating a female even though he had not actual feelings for her. Worse yet, he might engage in activities to prove his manhood, endangering himself and others.
While the policy against homosexuals is questionable in light of Scouting’s teachings, the court system has given the organization the legal right to continue the ban. For example, in 2000 the Supreme Court ruled in Boy Scouts of America et al. v. Dale that a private association has the right to select its membership.(8) Additionally, other rulings have blocked attempts to restrict preferential access to government facilities based on their discrimination against homosexuals.
However, the BSA was not immune from pressures from donor groups. About 50 local chapters of the United Way along with major companies such as Chase Manhattan Bank, Levi Strauss, Fleet Bank, CVS/Pharmacy and Pew Charitable Trusts have removed all funding.(9) This is thought by many to be the reason for the change in policy.
Unfortunately, the pressure does not exist to eliminate the other prohibition that I care about and that is the ban on atheists. The Scout Law still requires reverence and a belief in a God (any God). This would disqualify a boy version of my adult self from obtaining the advantages of the Scouting program.