In yet another act of conservative capitulation, the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) voted to reverse its policy against openly gay scout leaders last week, with an important exception for church-based troops, who can choose to keep excluding them. Unfortunately, this may alienate the Boy Scouts’ huge conservative constituency, without satisfying the Left. As an Eagle Scout myself, it pains me to see the organization of my boyhood mired in a needless political debate.
While likely well-intentioned, this move has proven catastrophic — reversing an historic Supreme Court victory, potentially endangering boys on campouts, and angering both sides of the moral divide.
Previously, the Boy Scouts of America banned openly gay adults from serving in positions of leadership. Now, the national organization has removed the ban, but it allows church-based groups (roughly 70 percent of local chapters) to maintain the ban if they desire. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — better known as Mormons — hinted that this decision may still cause it to leave the BSA, and liberal groups are decrying this as a stop-gap measure which still allows for unjust discrimination against homosexuals.
In calling for the policy change, BSA President Robert Gates said exclusion of gay leaders is “unsustainable,” that it “was inevitably going to result in simultaneous legal battles in multiple jurisdictions, and at staggering costs.” Maintaining the policy would mean “the end of us as a national movement.” In other words, it is time for the Boy Scouts of America to “get with the times,” or find itself at the wrong end of an expensive legal battle, like Aaron and Melissa Klein.
Surrendering a Supreme Court Victory
Gates’s fear that charges of “discrimination” would be levelled at the BSA due to a policy of excluding openly gay leaders is far from unfounded. Economic and cultural elites have strongly turned against even religious protections for groups which oppose open homosexuality and gay marriage, as seen in Indiana earlier this year. Ironically, however, by applying this policy the Boy Scouts may have forfeited the strongest kind of legal argument — a Supreme Court decision.
In Boy Scouts of America v. Dale (2000), the United States Supreme Court ruled that the BSA had a constitutionally protected right under the First Amendment to its then-exclusive membership policy. As National Review’s Ed Whelan remarked, that decision rested on the Boy Scouts’ position that “homosexual conduct is inconsistent with the values it seeks to instill.”
“On my honor, I will do my best, to do my duty to God and my country, and to obey the Scout Law. To help other people at all times, and to keep myself physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight.” This scout oath emphasizes duty to God and country, and elevates moral rectitude as the third most important part of maturing from boy to man. Whether or not the BSA was right to consider homosexuality immoral, the Supreme Court was right to say the moral code is a fundamental part of the Scouts’ message.
The First Amendment protection for freedom of speech extends not only to individuals, but to groups of individuals as well, the Supreme Court argued. Since its version of morality was central to the Boy Scouts’ speech, the Constitution protected the organization from mandates to include members who openly opposed one tenet of the moral code — being openly homosexual.
(This may not have applied to all gays — indeed, there are many scouts who later come out after their time in scouting — but the Boy Scouts wanted to refrain from adding sexual tension to their activities. More on this later.)
The argument for this protection, however, could be fundamentally weakened should the BSA’s position on open homosexuality evolve. So long as the Boy Scouts’ moral code does not endorse homosexual behavior, the defense should stand — their policy is buttressed by the freedom of speech enshrined in the Constitution, according to the Supreme Court.
In 2013, the BSA extended membership to boys who were openly homosexual. This did not violate the premise on which the Supreme Court case was based, but it seemed to open the door to alterations of the BSA moral code.
Allowing gay boys to join the Boy Scouts does not necessarily send the message that homosexuality is suddenly acceptable. So long as the adult leaders were not openly gay, the BSA could still claim the defense of the Supreme Court decision, because their structure did not encourage homosexuality. While some of the scouts would openly identify as gay, the role models would not.
So long as the BSA held that open homosexuality is unacceptable for adult leaders who would necessarily be moral role models to the scouts, the Supreme Court decision should have shielded the national organization from charges of discrimination.
This new decision may actually open local chapters to litigation, however. Should the protection of the Supreme Court decision be extended to local chapters when the national organization has rejected the moral opposition to open homosexuality? Since the BSA no longer includes that message as part of its constitutionally defended free speech, liberal groups may successfully sue for “discrimination” on the grounds of “sexual orientation.”
Beside the decision not to extend moral support to homosexuality, the Boy Scouts of America had another reason to deny openly gay leaders. Do you really want your 12-year-old son to go on a campout with gay adult supervisors?
Before you scream about how unjust it is that homosexuals would be suspected of such horrible things in this day and age, take a look at the BSA’s own history. In 2012, court cases revealed 1,247 files on suspected and convicted pedophile scout leaders.
Even so vocal an opponent of the ban on gay leaders as the Chicago Tribune’s David Rutter acknowledges that a vital part of “scouting’s ban viewed gay adults as potential pedophiles.” While most open homosexuals likely do not harbor such disgusting desires, it is far from irrational to want to protect your boys from this possibility.
Just as it would raise questions if a straight male were a leader — and especially if he were the sole adult leader — at a Girl Scout campout, it may prove problematic to have a gay man be a leader at a Boy Scout campout. Not only would some boys feel uncomfortable, but they might misinterpret a friendly pat on the back as something more. Charges of sexual assault can damage a gay man’s life just as much as they would a straight man’s.
Angering Both Sides
While the new policy allowing gay leaders was well-intended, it may actually have left the Boy Scouts legally defenseless and alienated both sides of the political debate. A decision Gates viewed as a sophisticated way to placate both the gay rights movement and the churches that predominate in BSA’s membership ended up angering both sides.
Already, voices across the gay-rights movement are calling for further capitulation. Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin acknowledged this “welcome step,” but attacked the provision allowing churches to keep the old policy. “Discrimination should have no place in the Boy Scouts, period,” Griffin declared. Zach Wahls, an Eagle Scout and gay rights advocate, worried that this policy could create a “sharply divided organization.”
As David French aptly put it, “LGBT Groups Not Satisfied Unless Religious Liberty is Trampled.” The Huffington Post’s Michelangelo Signorile, as if aiming to prove French’s point, wrote that the BSA’s new policy “is making a religious exemption seem like a reasonable compromise when in fact it is allowing the very people who would discriminate keep discriminating.” Not satisfied with a difficult compromise, Signorile declares that “attempting to ‘compromise’ on civil rights sends a horrible message to young people.”
The gay lobby doesn’t care if it would violate a church’s beliefs to put gay men in leadership positions over their children, or if it would worry parents to have gay leaders on campouts. Such “bigoted” views and fears must be silenced at all costs.
The church groups on which BSA depends for existence, and which Gates figured would appreciate this opportunity to keep the old policy or open their doors to gay leaders, also reacted negatively to the decision.
“The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is deeply troubled by today’s vote,” the Mormon Church announced, moments after the new policy. “When the leadership of the church resumes its regular schedule of meetings in August, the century-long association with scouting will need to be examined.”
Mormons use the Boy Scouts as their main nonreligious activity for boys — and the Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts units they sponsor accounted for 17 percent of all scouts in 2013, the latest year with available data. After this decision, the Mormon Church is reportedly weighing the decision whether to split off and create its own separate scouting organization, since one half of Mormon youth live in countries without a current scouting organization.
Southern Baptist Convention spokesman Roger Oldham said Baptists may also be ready to leave the BSA instead of eventually accepting gay leaders. Oldham predicted that this decision will not be the last word, and that conservative groups will be “put into a situation where they have to either compromise their conviction or choose to leave.”
“For those for whom Biblical sexual morality is a conviction, they have no alternative,” Oldham concluded.
In short, this new policy seems to have created new problems, rather than solving a pressing issue. While Gates and the BSA may have received threats and rightly noticed the overarching vehemence of the gay rights movement, this pre-emptive surrender has won them no favors and could have lost local chapters an ironclad legal defense. Perhaps they should have left well enough alone.
That being said, I do not advocate for conservatives to pull their boys out of the Boy Scouts of America. If the organization does mandate that gay leaders be allowed in all troops — as some conservatives rightly fear — then the time will come to jump ship for Trail Life USA, as some already have done. The preservation of local autonomy — always central to this very local organization — reconciles me and others to a distasteful capitulation. I only hope that local troops will indeed be able to preserve their freedom on these issues.