No matter what decision is made by the Boy Scouts of America about whether or not to allow openly gay members and leaders, it’s a lose-lose proposition. BSA will, in the end, be a different organization than it has been in the past. (For full disclosure, I’m a retired Scoutmaster and am still involved with BSA in a smaller way.)
For those who have not followed this issue, here’s the crux of the controversy:
BSA is a national organization and is part of the larger worldwide Scouting movement. Each nation sets its own rules for its organization and membership.
In this country, BSA is organized through some 200 councils in the U.S. that in turn oversee the local troops with support services, such as training, summer camps and materials. Each troop has a local community sponsoring organization and many of those sponsors are local churches or civic organizations.
With its membership, BSA has in the past been considered a private organization and as such, has the legal authority to set its own membership rules. Among its rules has been to exclude female members and openly atheist or gay members and leaders. (Female leaders are now allowed.) But there isn’t a BSA litmus test on whether or not someone is gay or an atheist — the policy has been very much “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
Still, the fact that BSA has a policy to exclude openly gay members and leaders has been an ongoing controversy for years. That issue has now reached a peak since more and more states are allowing gay marriage and the gay rights movement has gained traction under a friendly political environment in Washington.
Although local troops are funded through their sponsors and their own fundraising, the area councils and BSA national are funded largely through donations, many of which are corporate donations. Some of the larger donors have been pressuring BSA at the national and council level to change its policy and allow gay members and leaders. In some areas of the country, that pressure has reportedly been intense and threatens the viability of Boy Scouts in those communities.
Last summer, BSA issued a statement reaffirming its current position to disallow openly gay members. So it was a surprise to many when in late January, a story broke that the BSA executive committee would discuss in February changing the national policy to allow individual troop sponsors to make the decision on membership rules.
That set off a firestorm. It caught a lot of BSA supporters off-guard who had no inkling that such a discussion was being contemplated. And it drew a huge backlash from many local scout leaders and charter organizations. Many inside BSA viewed the move as the national organization abandoning the local organizations. If BSA did adopt a policy to allow local groups to decide their own membership, then those local groups, not BSA national, would be the ones sued if they refused to allow gay members. Many BSA volunteers and charter groups felt BSA national was trying to take the chicken way out of the controversy.
In the end, BSA national decided to postpone that discussion until its national meeting in May. At that meeting, every council will have a group of delegates and those delegates will get a chance to vote on the proposal. But nobody knows just yet exactly what policy language will be put out for a vote, or if that vote will be binding, or just for guidance.
Both sides of this issue have very strong opinions. Those in favor of changing the policy to allow openly gay members and leaders say that to keep the current discrimination policy in place goes against the changes taking place in society. To continue the policy, they argue, is morally wrong and will lead to less participation in the future.
Some in the pro-change camp also say that unless the policy is changed, funding cuts will eventually drive BSA into the change, or put it out of business. And there is a feeling that when the issue is litigated again — as is likely — the Supreme Court would probably strike down the current policy anyway, so why not go ahead and change it before that happens?
But those opposing a change are equally ardent in their views that opening the door to allow gay membership would destroy BSA. For one thing, many local troops are sponsored by churches, especially Methodists and Mormon groups. Since homosexuality goes against the beliefs of many churches, some argue that a lot of troop charter organizations would abandon BSA over a difference in moral beliefs. From a legal standpoint, some worry that opening the door to gay members would also upend the ban on atheists and would also force the organization to become coed rather than just boy-focused. In addition, there is a fear that there would be a lot of traditional families and volunteer leaders who would withdraw from Scouting in protest over changing the policy (especially in conservative red states.) Finally, if BSA changes its policy, it would also likely lose funding from many conservative corporate sponsors who don’t want to see such a change.
So either way, BSA is damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t. If it makes a change and opens its membership to gay members and leaders, it risks alienating many of its local religious sponsors and traditional volunteer leaders, members and donors. If it doesn’t make the change, or tries to punt the issue down to local charter sponsors, it risks losing some big donors, liberal members and volunteers and it will continue to be dogged by the controversy.
BSA today is like the guy who got his arm stuck between two rocks while hiking in Utah and who had to eventually cut his arm off to escape. He survived, but is missing a key part of himself.
It remains to be seen if BSA will make a decision in May, or if it will again kick the issue down the road for another day. But one thing is certain, the longer this controversy drags on, the more it will damage the organization and detract the focus from what it’s really supposed to be about, which is using the environment of the outdoors to teach skills through which young boys learn about leadership and the ability to adapt to challenging conditions.
The boys seem to do just fine at learning leadership and adapting to harsh environments.
If only we adults could do as well.
Mike Buffington is co-publisher of MainStreet Newspapers, Inc. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.