The Boy Scouts had to salute gay equality

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The Duty to God Award presented to LDS Boy Scouts prior to 2002.

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The Duty to God Award presented to LDS Boy Scouts prior to 2002.

The Duty to God Award presented to LDS Boy Scouts prior to 2002.

The Duty to God Award presented to LDS Boy Scouts prior to 2002.

My mother, may she rest in peace, refused to let me and my brothers join the Boy Scouts because boys in uniform conjured up for her images of the Hitler Youth. That view was understandable in a Jewish woman who grew up in the 1930s but, luckily for the Scouts, was not widely shared by other American mothers after World War II.

The point is that organizations like the Boy Scouts of America, which seek membership throughout society, have to be sensitive to public opinion — which means they must carefully adapt to changing social norms. Thus, in the early 1980s, the BSA first won a legal case challenging its right to have only male Scout leaders, then voluntarily changed its policy to permit leaders to be women.

As once with women, so today with gays: first a BSA legal victory to maintain its anti-homosexual policy (Boy Scouts of America v. Dale), then opening membership to boys regardless of sexual orientation, and now permitting gay leaders. The legal memo accompanying BSA’s announcement of its decision makes clear that the most serious pressure is internal:

[I]t has become more challenging for the BSA to declare that homosexual conduct is not morally straight and not clean. There is increased opposition to that position within Scouting, including local councils openly opposing the policy. There is increased opposition to that position within Scouting, including local councils openly opposing the policy. If Dale were litigated today, some BSA chartered organizations and local councils would file amicus curiae briefs stating that the exclusion of homosexuals from leadership is not part of the BSA’s expression.

But the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision last month doubtless played its part. With  the United States recognizing same-sex marriage as a constitutional right, the BSA could no longer afford to treat homosexuality as less than “morally straight” and “clean” — and yet, many of its members and chartered organizations belong to religious bodies that do. How to proceed?

Godliness combined with religious Inclusivity has been a BSA principle from the beginning. In its original 1911 Handbook, published at a time when the YMCA was all about promoting evangelical Christianity, the BSA emphasized that the Scout oath (“I promise on my honor to do my best to honor my God and my country”) applied to those of all faiths:

The recognition of God as the ruling and leading power in the universe, and the grateful acknowledgement of His favors and blessings is necessary to the best type of citizenship and is a wholesome thing in the education of the growing boy. No matter what the boy may be — Catholic, or Protestant, or Jew — this fundamental need of good citizenship should be kept before him. The Boy Scouts of America therefore recognize the religious element in the training of a boy, but it is absolutely non-sectarian in its attitude toward that religious training.

I suspect that it was this principled religious inclusivity that led an LDS Church mindful of persecution and prejudice to embrace BSA from the outset, and make Scouting its only youth program for boys.

But just as the country has struggled to balance the First Amendment’s free exercise and establishment clauses, so BSA’s religious stance has required a balancing act, and not only with respect to avowed atheists. When women were permitted as Scout leaders, religious chartered organizations were allowed to maintain a males-only policy. At the same time, current BSA regulations include this prohibition: “In no case where a unit is connected with a church or other distinctively religious organization shall members of other denominations or faith be required, because of their membership in the unit, to take part in or observe a religious ceremony distinctly unique to that organization or church.”

As far as homosexuality goes, the BSA on the one hand requires organizations to admit gay scouts, but under its new rule will “not require any religious chartered organization to accept an adult leader whose espoused personal beliefs are in conflict with the chartered organization’s religious principles.” The exemption is unavailable to units not connected to religious organizations.

How well this balancing act will stand up remains to be seen, not only in court but also among those religious bodies that consider homosexuality morally crooked and unclean. Foremost among the latter is the LDS Church, which sponsors 17 percent of all Boy Scout troops. In a statement, the church said it was “deeply troubled” by the change in policy and would reexamine its century-long association with BSA.

What exactly troubles church authorities is not entirely clear. The statement criticized the BSA Executive Board for ignoring a request to delay its vote until LDS governing authorities were back at their desks, but so what?

In contrast to the position of Trail Life USA, a Christian organization formed in opposition to BSA’s removal of its ban on gay members, the LDS statement said that the “Church has always welcomed all boys to its Scouting units regardless of sexual orientation.” Granted, “the admission of openly gay leaders is inconsistent with the doctrines of the Church,” but under the BSA policy LDS Boy Scout organizations needn’t permit gay leaders. In fact, the LDS Church does not permit women to be Scout leaders of boys “of Aaronic Priesthood age,” that is ages 12-17, presumably because that would also be inconsistent with LDS doctrines.

Given that the Church has recently found a way to support legislation protecting the LGBT community in Utah from discrimination in housing and employment without undermining its doctrines, you’d think it could find a way to square itself with the new BSA policy. In the 1930s, the Nazis took over the Mormons’ Boy Scout organizations in Germany and turned them into Hitler Youth. My mother notwithstanding, I’d hate to see the Mormons voluntarily turn their Scouting organizations into something else today.

  • Larry

    To put it politely, to hell with the LDS.

    If they are annoyed that they can no longer use the non-sectarian, inclusive Boy Scouts in service of their sectarian prejudices, so be it. Although religion plays a part in Scouting, it is not an integral one. Religious awards and education are purely optional within the organization. Citizenship is the overriding value of Scouting. Duty to one’s nation, community and all those within it. Discrimination cheapens and undermines these values.

    To be honest, I sincerely doubt they will do much of anything here. The LDS involvement with the Boy Scouts was the church’s attempt to give its sect a level of mainstream acceptance generally denied them by the Conservative Christian community. A way to ingratiate themselves into the national culture almost sight unseen. To break off and form their own group would make the church appear more apart from the rest of the world. An image they have been careful to avoid.

  • Larry

    Your Mom steered you in the wrong direction. 🙂

    A youth wearing a uniform does not a fascist make.

    One Scoutmaster of my old troop growing up, was a Jewish man and Eagle Scout, who grew up in the 30’s. He donned a uniform to fight the Nazis as a bomber pilot with the 8th Air Force.

    About 2/3rds of our astronauts had scouting experience.
    http://www.usscouts.org/eagle/eagleastronauts.asp

  • ben in oakland

    So the Mormons got their religious carve-out, and it STILL wasn’t enough for them.

    They are perfectly willing to associate with other religious believers who think that Mormonism is heresy, or apostasy, or myth making taken to a new and lucrative level, but it is just too much for them to be expected to treat gay people as fully human.

    This sounds so very familiar. Where have I heard it before? Oh, yes! when the Mormon’s passed their landmark gay rights bill a few months ago in Utah, there was a glaring exception to the laws protecting gay people from discrimination in housing, employment, and public accommodations.

    An exception for “sincere religious belief”, and a poison pill that would kill the whole bill if any part of it– i.e., permission to discriminate on the basis of religious belief– were found unconstitutional.

    Hypocrisy, thy name is not only Christian, not only legion, but also not-really-a-Christian (according to the Baptists) as well.

  • Jay

    The BSA ruined what had been a universally respected brand. Its victory in Dale v. BSA was at pyrrhic victory at best. Many civic groups and local governments could no longer use taxpayer money to subsidize the organization. And then many of its corporate donors withdrew. So did many private donors, who no longer wanted to be associated with an organization that had become a byword of discrimination. I suspect it is now too late to stop the erosion of membership and respect. The BSA is likely to become a regional group, confined to religious sponsorship, mostly in small towns in the South and the plains.

  • Tom Downs

    A hundred years ago the Boy Scouts, like the public school, were all about making good citizens. Scouting’s founders in the US assumed that some sort of religious affiliation was essential to good citizenship. Which group you affiliated with was less important. The presumption was that there would be many religious groups represented in scouting across the country. What did they believe was religion’s contribution to good citizenship?
    I suspect it was the communitarian nature of religious groups, their dedication to service beyond themselves, and their general hopeful outlook. These are virtues that scouting shares.

  • samuel johnston

    Hi Tom,
    You are going to HELL! Sorry, it just jumped out of me.
    Religion is viewed as benign by conforming community types, despite the fact that many (perhaps most) religious organizations use fear, and ostracism, to keep their members in line.

  • I’ve read a lot of reviews on this decision, researched the BSA ByLaws and the National Key 3 press release which explained their decision and I have to say Tom you nailed it! The root of the controversey is with everyones view of what “having faith” means. This is what society is struggling with including the National Key 3 and the Executive Board. What do you get from believing in God? Does it make you a better citizen? Can I only follow certain parts of the bible and not others? All good questions that people struggle with in their faith every day. No matter what some may think, BSA is about and was founded on Christianity. Research the founder, read the Bylaws. It is the wavering of a persons faith that is allowing this to happen and the arrogance of some that think they have the right to force their views over others. I’ve read this in many post so I’ll repeat it here….society is heading down a slippery slope once you start letting people take away your faith.

  • Doc Anthony

    The BSA has caved in — and it is NOT done caving in yet.

    Marshmallow leaders produce marshmallow boys, and predators love marshmallow boys.

    Churches and families need **strong** boys in today’s messed-up world.

    So GET OUT OF THE BSA already, churches !!!!!!!

  • samuel johnston

    Hi Chad,
    “..society is heading down a slippery slope once you start letting people take away your faith.”
    Seriously; I know what a slippery slope is, but what is this faith that you refer to? Does it mean allegiance to a/the Christian doctrine? Does it mean the belief that human life has a higher purpose than the greatest good for those of us living on the earth? Does it mean that the next life is the goal of this life?
    Finally, who/what is taking away your faith? Sounds to me like you wish to control other people, to make them “behave” as you do/wish. I wish for folks like you to think harder and longer about who they are, and what they wish.

  • Larry

    “predators love marshmallow boys.”

    “The predators that prey on Boy Scouts usually prefer thin good looking boys”

    Doc and bqrq appear to be speaking from personal experience as sexual predators.

    Glad we are getting that out of the way.

  • Larry

    “BSA is about and was founded on Christianity”
    The idea that the BSA was founded on Christianity is a flat out lie. It was always meant to be inclusive of ALL faiths. Not just Christians, EVERYONE. It is deliberately non-sectarian at its basis. Shifts from that represented later actions based on the efforts of troop sponsors.

    “Research the founder, read the Bylaws. It is the wavering of a persons faith that is allowing this to happen and the arrogance of some that think they have the right to force their views over others. ”

    The founder, Lord Baden-Powell was a gay man who had a very dim view towards how religion pulled people away from nationalist citizenship concerns. Scouting was founded after seeing British soldiers pasted in South Africa by armed farmers due to lack of outdoors skills. The Boy Scouts was meant to be the alternative to divisive sectarian religious youth groups and foster nationalist ethos.

  • Doc Anthony

    I thought you weren’t into Ad Hominems, Larry?

    You decide to sign up after all?

  • Glenn Harrell

    No matter how the Scouts established themselves, they, just as our country, must evolve. Syncretism of this sort is painful.

    For many Scout troupes, this new chapter in time will prove to be too much. Now that the supporting churches are in a minority, (finally) the minority must abide and conform or move on to their own version of the same.

    They no longer have the vote or support of the majority to sustain their status quot, no matter how nobly they may interpret it. “Mormons & Baptists–go home and leave us alone!”

    Their battle was lost long before a Supreme Court ruling came to pass because our culture said so. This is also true for SSM and LGBT matters.
    In the words of Foghorn Leghorn, “There’s something kind of EEEW about that.” The Supreme court as of late is like the parent afraid of the child.

    We are just as our Supreme court–divided and all up in arms with correctness. Hello world, welcome the new normal.

  • Larry

    I wasn’t the person giving the overly specific reference to the tastes of sexual predators. That was all you and bqrq.

    I don’t presume to know what goes through the head of a child molester. If one was speaking from personal experience, they would be able to provide a good deal of detail. Like what you two did.

  • drwho13

    What percentage of parents would be comfortable sending their son on an over night camping trip?

  • Glenn Harrell

    Larry,
    Double check your gay reference to the good Lord Powell.

  • Glenn Harrell

    Amen Doc!

    How about a sermon on them girls. I was hoping Mark would have mentioned them. They deserve some attention here.

    It’s a good thing Scouts are taught the skills of untying knots, because they are certainly in one. And isn’t it interesting that the Girl Scouts are not in the news? Imagine that!

    Should we really be calling on men to be responsible for defining what is normal and what is deviant in sexuality? Really? What could women and girls possibly contribute to the subject?

    But never fret, If we have our way, an LGBTRQMSO (Oh, you didn’t know about the others?) will sweep over these Girl Scouts like a wave and tumble them face down into the sands of litigation with wealthy (never enough though) lawyers.
    Not enough thin mints in the world to get them out of this fix.

  • David Webb

    “The point is that organizations like the Boy Scouts of America, which seek membership throughout society, have to be sensitive to public opinion — which means they must carefully adapt to changing social norms.”

    “But the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision last month doubtless played its part. With the United States recognizing same-sex marriage as a constitutional right, the BSA could no longer afford to treat homosexuality as less than “morally straight” and “clean”…”

    WRONG, WRONG, WRONG!

    The BSA is a private organization, not a government agency. When Robert Baden-Powell founded the BSA, he wrote “We aim for the practice of Christianity in [the scouts] everyday life and dealings, and not merely the profession of theology on Sundays…”

    The BSA has NO OBLIGATION to the sensitivities of public opinion, except to its own charter and the desire of their members — which adamantly oppose permitting deviant aberrosexual scout leaders!

  • Larry

    It’s widely acknowledged.

  • Larry

    Wrong on a few accounts. Baden Powell did not found BSA, he founded Boy Scouts, in the UK. Your quote is probably bogus. Scouting was never declared “in the practice of Christianity”.Far from it. It was a deliberately non sectarian organization seeking to foster nationalism over religious affiliation.

    The American version of Scouting was far more entangled with religion than in its original nation or even others with their own versions of it.