Boy Scouts May End Ban on Gays, a Victory of Culture, not Government

Private influence, not government coercion, brings about cultural change


As noted a little while ago on Reason 24/7, NBC News has an intriguing scoop: The Boy Scouts may soon be ending its infamous ban on gay members, at least as national policy. It will instead allow local troops and sponsors to decide the matter for themselves.

The ban has survived years of external pressure and a Supreme Court decision from 2000 that allowed the exclusion of gay scouts under the First Amendment. But now pressure is being applied much more firmly from within – not just from gay members, but from whole chapters and corporate sponsors:

Two corporate CEOs on BSA's national board, Randall Stephenson of AT&T and James Turley of Ernst & Young, have also said they would work to end the ban. Stephenson is next in line to be the BSA's national chairman. …

About 50 local United Way groups and several corporations and charities have concluded that the ban violates their non-discrimination requirements and have ceased providing financial aid to the Boy Scouts. An official of The Human Rights Campaign, an advocate for gay rights, said HRC planned to downgrade its non-discrimination ratings for corporations that continue to give the BSA financial support.

"It's an extremely complex issue," said one Boy Scouts of America official, who explained that other organizations have threatened to withdraw their financial support if the BSA drops the ban.

This would be a huge cultural domino to tumble if the ban is actually lifted, second possibly only to the Catholic Church reversing its opinion on gay relationships, were that to ever happen.

The change would also notably different from the elimination of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy and the gay marriage recognition battles. Both of those battles were/are fights with the government, over the way the government classifies and treats its own citizens.

While activists have attempted to make the Boy Scouts membership policy a government issue, they have largely failed (though that Supreme Court decision was a close 5-4). But when more and more people who make up your organization tell you you're out of step, you might start to listen, especially if it starts to affect your bottom line.

Inevitably, thoughts about culture's evolving attitudes toward homosexuality lead to thoughts about the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA). ENDA would add sexual orientation and gender identity to the list of categories over which private employers may not discriminate. It has been introduced in Congress over and over again for years and has not passed even when the Democrats held most of the cards.

But do we even need it? Set aside for a moment, libertarian reader, your objections to government coercion in employment practices if you could. The argument is well taken – employers should be able to select their own criteria for hiring. It is an important component of human liberty. But set it aside for just a moment, please.

The HRC publishes an annual report looking at relevant corporate policies on gay and transgendered matters. Their most recent report notes that a full 88 percent of Fortune 500 companies have non-discrimination policies that include sexual orientation. In 2002 that number was 61 percent. A little less than half the states have non-discrimination laws now, but that's still a pretty big shift in policy. (The percentage of Fortune 500 companies that now have policies protecting transgendered employees from discrimination made an even bigger jump, from 3 to 57 percent in a decade)

So, even without a federal law, there's been a huge shift in corporate behavior, no doubt due to pressures by gay (and gay friendly) employees and customers, whose own attitudes (and courage) have shifted in time. If ENDA passes someday (certainly not through this Congress) would we even need it anymore?

What about Chick-fil-A? They received plenty of attention last year over their religious attitudes and opposition to gay marriage recognition. Well, one of the activists promoting the boycott of the fast food restaurant ended up spending New Year's Day at a football game with its president, Dan Cathy. Today, he blogged about his experience and how engaging with the businessman went a lot further to advancing his pro-gay aims than the heavily politicized boycott that pretty much backfired. The company has stopped donating to organizations with anti-gay aims (they were only a small part of the company's actual donations anyway, despite the "millions of dollars" being tossed about) and the activist's group has suspended its boycott.

Should the Boy Scouts decide to end their ban – it may be announced as early as next week – it will be a huge civil liberties win pursued not through the government, but through voluntary cultural engagement. It is a culmination of the efforts of thousands – even millions – of individual actors applying pressure when and where they can, not through legislative, executive, or judicial declaration.