This week, the leaders of The Boys Scouts of America (BSA) are meeting to revisit the group's ban on allowing gays to participate as scouts and leaders. BSA is widely expected to vote to allow the individual chartering organizations that sponsor troops to make their own decision on the matter. Most observers expect many troops to allow gays and others, especially those linked to conservative churches, to maintain the ban.
As Reason 24/7 News (your indispensable source for breaking news all day long) points out, President Barack Obama has said he thinks the Scouts should allow gays full participation. Incumbent presidents have long been the honorary head of the organization, so his repsonse in a pre-Super Bowl interview is not just routine skylarking (though there's some of that in it, to be sure). Gov. Rick Perry (R-Texas), who is an Eagle Scout, has repeatedly said that the ban should stay.
As an Eagle Scout who chose not to let my own sons participate in scouts due to its longstanding policy of exclusion, I agree with the president.
The controversy on the matter was the subject of a piece I wrote that appears in the weekend edition of the Wall Street Journal:
I still draw on what I learned in the Scouts, whose mission statement talks about preparing "young people to make ethical and moral choices over their lifetimes." That creed has helped to make me a better father—or at least a less-bad one—to my two sons, whom I kept from joining the Boy Scouts because of the group's position on gays.
It was a decision that I made with much sadness and not a little anger, but it was fully in keeping with the Scout Oath, which requires members to do their best to be "morally straight" at all times and to do what they think is right.
At the same time, even though I disagree about BSA's policy, it's worth keeping in mind that as a private organization, the group should have every right to set and enforce any membership policy they want. Voluntary association is a hugely important principle to maintain, especially in a society where we all have different ideas of how best to live our lives. In fact, BSA's right was upheld (correctly) by the Supreme Court in 2000 over the very issue of gays.
It's also worth keeping in mind that the organization has been paying a price for their retrograde policy whose basic error stems from confusing homosexuals with child molesters and perverts. That confusion is rooted in longstanding homophobia that is not only mistaken but somehow prevented the Boy Scouts from policing actual cases of child molesting that occurred under its aegis. Most, if not all, of the problems the group covered up for decades involved married men who preyed on children. Child molesters are child molesters, and it's a different issue than sexual orientation. I think if the Scouts openly allow gays to join and lead, the organization can only become more transparent in the ways it operates and, ultimately, better at protecting the boys it serves. And it may win back some of the support it has lost from companies such as UPS, which stopped giving it money due to the policy on gays.
The Boy Scouts have been in a decades-long decline in terms of numbers and influence in American life for many reasons: It developed in a very different America and, like many social organizations that gained prominence before World War II, its relevance has waned as the United States has become more modern, more mobile, less gender-biased, and more. It's not clear that allowing gays to join openly at least some troops will do much to slow that decline - and if the opt-in/opt-out revision goes through, it's far from the sort of clear signal that group might send that it's moving into the 21st century. But it's still an improvement over the current policy.