The fallout continues from the Boy Scouts of America's decision on May 23 to allow gay youths to join the century-old organization, with camps divided on whether the change in policy goes too far or not far enough.
By reversing its long-standing policy, the Scouts ended years of discrimination based on sexual orientation. Although the Supreme Court had upheld the ban based on the constitutional right to freedom of association, the organization ultimately was moved by public opinion. With gay marriage becoming legal in more states and homosexuality considered "morally acceptable" by a majority of Americans in nationwide polls, the Boy Scouts of America was under increasing pressure to lift the prohibition.
The issue exposed what has always been a contradiction in the Boy Scouts' mission. While maintaining itself as a nationwide youth organization, the Boy Scouts has never been a secular organization. Its mission is "to prepare young people to make ethical and moral choices over their lifetimes by instilling in them the values of the Scout Oath and Law." The oath talks about duty to God, and the law describes Scouts as being, among other things, "reverent." Churches sponsor 70 percent of Boy Scout troops, and the organization continues to bar avowed atheists and agnostics (not to mention girls) from participation.
It is difficult to be a broad-based, national service group while at the same time requiring belief in a particular moral or religious system. This tension can be seen in the half-a-loaf decision to admit gay youths but not gay leaders.
By admitting gay youths, the Boy Scouts responded to growing national pressure, including calls from some Jewish and Christian groups who fought to end the ban. But it angered some churches that sponsor troops, which are now creating their own, competing youth groups for boys.
By refusing to admit gay leaders, the Scouts hoped to maintain some sort of moral stance against homosexuality. But both secular and religious groups have been fighting to end its discrimination against gay people and believe the recent decision didn't go far enough. The Unitarian Church already had founded Navigators USA to offer a nondiscriminatory alternative for youth.
The Boy Scouts' decision to admit gay youths was pragmatic. It acknowledges the changing values of society at large and the Scouts' need to remain a broad-based organization. But its hesitancy to include adults in the policy change is apparently rooted in the fear that gay adults can't be good moral leaders.
The Scouts may have lifted the ban on gay youths, but continuing a ban on gay adults casts that decision in a shadow. If the Scouts mistrust gay leaders, what message does that send to the gay youths who may now become Scouts? How can it be unacceptable to discriminate against youths based on sexual orientation, but acceptable to discriminate against adults?
By admitting some gays and not others to the world of Scouting, the Boy Scouts of America continues to waiver on this issue. The group is torn between appealing to a broad cross-section of people while trying to appease religious groups with specific ideas about morality.
Ultimately, it may not be possible for the Scouts to do - and be - both.
Acknowledgement of a higher deity and acceptance that there is something greater than one's self is a core Scout value. That central principle, however, should incorporate a vast spectrum of beliefs, including those who see sexual orientation as part of an individual's identity, separate and distinct from his moral makeup.
Deep down, the leaders of the Boy Scouts of America know that they are not running a church. It's time they stopped behaving as one. If that causes some religious organizations who want the Scouts to abide only by their belief structure to end their participation, so be it.