LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Meeting [May 23] in Grapevine, Texas, the National Council of the Boy Scouts of America will decide whether it will retain or revise its historic membership policy on the issue of homosexuality. The 1,400 voting members of the B.S.A. National Council hold the future of one of America’s most iconic organizations in their hands. In reality, they are not only deciding a matter of membership policy. They are actually deciding the future of the entire organization.
The culture wars came to the Boy Scouts many years ago. For the last few decades, the Boy Scouts have had to fight battles with both secularists and homosexual activists. The secular challenge came first, with demands that the Scouts drop their historic requirement that boys affirm belief in God as a criterion for membership. Soon thereafter, the demand for the full inclusion of homosexual members and leaders followed. The Scouts have had to fight legal battles both locally and nationally, costing the venerable organization millions of dollars in legal fees. In 2000, the B.S.A. prevailed at the U.S. Supreme Court when the nation’s highest court ruled that the Boy Scouts had a constitutional right to exclude openly gay boys and leaders from the organization, so long as that exclusion is based in one of the organization’s core convictions – an “expressive message.” The B.S.A. won the case because that is exactly what they claimed. They argued that excluding openly homosexual boys and leaders from Scouting was necessary and required by the Scout Oath.
Last year, the B.S.A.’s board affirmed the policy in no uncertain terms. Bob Mazzuca, then the organization’s chief executive, said: “The vast majority of the parents of youth we serve value their right to address the issues of same-sex orientation within their family, with spiritual advisors and at the appropriate time and in the right setting.” In other words, the B.S.A.’s chief executive said that the board recognized that “the vast majority of parents” did not want the policy changed. Deron Smith, the B.S.A.’s national spokesman, said that a special committee asked to advise the national board “came to the conclusion that this policy is absolutely the best policy for the Boy Scouts.”
That was less than a year ago. Then, just a few months later, everything changed. Earlier this year, the B.S.A. announced a proposed change that would remove the restriction as a matter of national policy, leaving the decision about the inclusion of openly homosexual scouts and leaders to local units. This proposal, rushed after a leak within the organization let the word out to the public, was greeted with a firestorm of protest. As many predicted, that policy proposal went nowhere. A local option on an issue of this importance would satisfy no one and would lead to geographical problems that would be insurmountable. Furthermore, parents would be in the position of having to interview local Scout units in order to determine which did and did not accept openly homosexual scouts.
Shortly after that proposal was released, it was withdrawn. Then the B.S.A. announced that it would ask people from all levels of scouting, including parents, to participate in a survey on the issue. That survey, filled with strangely awkward and candid questions, was received by the B.S.A. a few weeks ago. Then, last month, the B.S.A. announced its new proposal, and the National Council will decide its fate on Thursday.
The new proposal calls for the inclusion of openly homosexual boys within the Boy Scouts, but retains the exclusion of openly gay adults. For a second time, the B.S.A. attempted to find a compromise solution that would, at least, buy the organization some time. But, for a second time, the organization actually created an impossible and unworkable proposal that, once again, will please no one.
The problems with the new policy are legion. In the first place, it fundamentally surrenders the very “expressive message” that had been recognized by the Supreme Court back in 2000. Surrendering that core conviction is, in itself, both a moral and a legal disaster. There is no reason to believe that the federal courts will now allow the B.S.A. to exclude gay adult leaders if the organization abandons its “expressive message” that homosexuality is incompatible with the values of Scouting. Some external observers have suggested that the B.S.A., fully aware of their legal surrender, just expects a court to require them to allow openly homosexual adults as leaders, freeing the B.S.A. board from responsibility for making that decision. That will not wash. In reality, they are making that decision now.
The other problems are complex and awkward. How, exactly, are openly gay boys to be included in the activities of Scouting? We are talking about boys who will now be expected to participate in everything from camping trips to travel with boys who are openly gay. Boys of these ages just might be the least equipped of all God’s creatures to deal with the complexities of the situation. Most parents are likely to decide that, all things considered, this is just not something they want imposed on their sons.
The B.S.A., to its credit, has made clear that all forms of sexual activity are incompatible with the values of Scouting. But, while this is clearly meant to preclude any form of sexual contact, sexual activity is a far broader category, including how an individual presents himself to others. Given the inclusion of openly gay Scouts, any advocacy of belief that homosexuality is sinful will not be tolerated.
What about transgender and “gender questioning” scouts? Public high schools across the country are now dealing with the fact that a student born one gender can demand to play on a sports team of the opposite gender, if a transgender identity is claimed. How will the B.S.A. deal with that issue? It is hard to imagine that their inclusion of openly gay Scouts can avoid the necessary inclusion of transgender and gender questioning youth. Legal authorities increasingly tell organizations and schools that if a young person claims to be a boy (or a girl) the youth must be recognized as whatever gender the youth claims. How is that going to work at your local Boy Scout troop?
Add to this the lack of credibility in a policy that will allow a boy to join the Scouts and progress through ranks, but then require his exit the day he turns 18. Neither side in this controversy can respect that inherent aspect of the proposed policy.
The religious liberty issues are already urgent. About 70 percent of all B.S.A. units are chartered by churches and religious organizations, the majority of which believe that homosexuality is a sin. Some units chartered by Christian churches require boys to affirm a specific faith commitment and a set of moral guidelines. Will those now be forbidden by national B.S.A. policy?
This policy proposal is a disaster. The B.S.A.’s national leadership has brought their organization to the brink of catastrophe. At the same time, we can recognize that the B.S.A. has been the target of unrelenting pressure for decades now. Press reports indicate that some of the members of the national board have been threatened with shareholder action if they, as corporate leaders, do not deliver on the demand for change.
Furthermore, we must sympathize with the organization’s rightful hope to include as many boys as possible within its honored and respected program. At this point, we should remember that homosexual scouts and scouts with any number of sexual confusions have always been involved in Scouting. But this new policy relates to openly homosexual youth. Bringing that advocacy within an organization for boys is both unwise and calamitous.
A recent Washington Post/ABC News poll indicated that 63 percent of Americans believe that the B.S.A. should welcome gay scouts and 56 percent would lift the ban on gay adult leaders. But the survey undertaken by the B.S.A. revealed that of the 200,000 parents, Scouting leaders and Scouts surveyed, 61 percent supported maintaining the current policy of excluding gays. Will the members of the B.S.A. National Council listen to their own constituency? If so, the policy will not change.
I am a former Boy Scout who gained much from my experience as a boy in Scouting. I greatly respect the work of countless volunteers and the involvement of legions of boys in the program. I understand the pressures the Boy Scouts of America now faces, and I can sympathize with the board’s attempt to find an escape from such a public controversy. But this proposed policy spells disaster for the Scouts, and, if adopted, that disaster will not be long in coming. The policy proposal the B.S.A. National Council will face on Thursday would surrender principle and forfeit the future of one of the nation’s most honored organizations. The B.S.A. now stands on the brink of disaster. The future of the movement now rests in the hands of the only people who can turn the Boy Scouts back from the brink.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – R. Albert Mohler Jr. is president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. This column first appeared at his website, AlbertMohler.com.)