As a former Eagle Scout--a dark personal secret I usually only divulge during bouts of heavy drinking--I'm highly ambivalent about the recent court rulings regarding the Boy Scouts of America.
A few weeks ago, a New Jersey state appeals court ruled that the Scouts could not discriminate against a homosexual assistant scoutmaster. Vowing to appeal that decision, a Boy Scout spokesman put it this way: The Scouts "have long taught traditional family values, and a homosexual is simply not a role model for those values."
But more recently, California's Supreme Court has ruled that the Boy Scouts can bar gays--and atheists, too. One of the cases in the Golden State involved a homosexual assistant scoutmaster; the other a pair of twins who claimed to be agnostics.
While the rulings leave matters unsettled as far as a uniform national policy goes, the Scout's official positions disturb me deeply on a personal level--so much so that I will dissuade my own son from joining up when he reaches the appropriate age.
The plain fact is that Scouting's great value to boys is that it teaches them teamwork, leadership, and service to the community--qualities that have remarkably little to do with sexual orientation or belief in a supreme being. Indeed, in my own experience, scouting has always been filled with gays and non-believers, dispositions which never much got in the way of building fires, tying knots, or doing a good turn daily.
And yet, as troubling as I find the Boy Scout's membership rules, I am even more uncomfortable with their policies being hashed out in the courts. In the end, the scouts are a voluntary organization, a group whose right to define its vision of truth, justice, and the American way should be as inviolable as critics' right to question that vision. To force the Scouts--or any such group--to adopt a code of ethics with which it disagrees sets a dangerous precedent. As one of the California judges wrote, "Could the NAACP be compelled to accept as a member a Ku Klux Klansman? Could B'nai B'rith be required to admit an anti-Semite?"
Better that the Scouts be allowed to persist in their policy and be judged in the court of public opinion. Better that they be prepared to defend and explain their choices to members and non-members alike. Better that they do as they teach their young charges: To think long and hard about their course of action and to live with the consequences.
And better, perhaps, that those of us who once took a Scout oath to keep ourselves "mentally awake" and "morally straight" recognize the limits of the group that taught us those important lessons.
This commentary aired on NPR's All Things Considered March 24, 1998.