The national leaders of the Boy Scouts of America have in recent days mulled the decision to reverse course on a membership policy which prohibits gay men and lesbians from participating in the organization. Now, as the organization celebrates its 103rd anniversary, they decided the BSA "needs more time for a more deliberate review of its membership policy," according to Deron Smith, their national spokesman.
In the year since the BSA reaffirmed their exclusionary policy, over 1.5 million people signed petitions in opposition. And since last week, when the BSA announced they would review the policy during this week's national meeting, many voices spoke for keeping the ban. Some of the most prominent voices supporting the prohibition of gays and lesbians defend it by saying that homosexuality violates the BSA's moral principles, usually citing "A Scout is Reverent" from the Scout Law. However, the argument's logic is shouded in fog thicker than the London mist American William D. Boyce became lost in a century ago. Impressed when the Boy Scout who stopped to help him refused a tip, Boyce founded the BSA on February 8, 1910, basing the new organization on principles defined in the Scout Oath and Law.
Now, it seems that no one is actually looking at the BSA's written statements of principles. Not one person has been able to answer the question I first posed publicly last August:
If "A Scout is Reverent" and there are legitimate spiritual traditions and faiths which welcome gays and lesbians as any other people, how can the Boy Scouts of America justify a policy in which some scouts' faith systems are valued more than others?
The crux of the question is the comparison of the BSA's own definitions of their principles against their policy of barring gay and lesbian members.
The proposed policy would seem to embrace the religious diversity of the BSA's membership. When the BSA announced they would consider changing the ban, Smith released a statement to USA TODAY saying, "The policy change under discussion would allow the religious, civic, or educational organizations that oversee and deliver scouting to determine how to address this issue." Smith explained that no organization chartering a scouting unit would be required to admit gays or lesbians to that unit if it went against their own principles. This is essentially the freedom that local chartering organizations already have in every other aspect of membership selection. (For instance, a Boy Scout troop chartered by a Kiwanis club can dictate that only Kiwanians could join the troop.)
Yet, when the proposed policy change came out, there were immediately protests against this apparent show of respect to the many faith traditions represented among BSA members. In a letter to BSA headquarters, this Iowan scout leader in Iowa summed up one of the common arguments used to support the BSA's current policy:
Please keep DUTY TO GOD.
Please keep MORALLY STRAIGHT.
Do remember the 12 points of the Scout Law, which finish with CLEAN and REVERENT.
Not many are willing to keep a stand which protects the moral foundation and reverence upon which our country was founded. Our President Obama wants to extend the LEADERSHIP potential in scouts to all people, even those who do not share REVERENCE TO GOD, and who do not concur with MORALLY STRAIGHT.
The leader, who e-mailed his letter to more than two dozen volunteers including me, appears to argue that allowing individual charter organizations to elect whether to admit gays and lesbians according to their own principles would be a violation of the BSA's principles of "duty to God," "morally straight," "clean," and "reverent."
So, what is the connection between banning the participation of gays and lesbians and these scouting principles?
To find out, I looked up the BSA's own published definitions:
Duty to God: "Children benefit from the moral compass provided by religious tradition... Scouting does not define religious belief for its members" (scouting.org), and "You can do your duty to God by ... defending the rights of others to practice their own beliefs" (The Boy Scout Handbook, 12th ed., p. 22). The argument about sexual orientation is generally framed on religious grounds, and members' religious beliefs are not defined by the BSA, so the BSA has not made a religious stand about sexual orientation.
Morally Straight: "Your relationships with others should be honest and open. Respect and defend the rights of all people. Be clean in your speech and actions and faithful to your religious beliefs" (Scout Handbook, p. 23). BSA does not identify sexual orientation as a moral issue in itself and explicitly affirms the idea of defending and respecting the rights of others.
A Scout is Clean: "A Scout keeps his body and mind ﬁt and clean... He helps keep his home and community clean" (Scout Handbook, p. 25 and PDF, p. 26). The Scout Law was written in 1911; this definition is about health, wellness, and picking up litter, and encouraging others to do the same. Sexual orientation was not a topic of social concern at the time.
A Scout is Reverent: "A Scout is reverent toward God. He is faithful in his religious duties. He respects the beliefs of others" (Scout Handbook, p. 25 and PDF, p. 28). BSA expects each Scout to comply with his own faith while respecting that others' beliefs may be different.
Given the BSA's definitions, we must consider this: If the BSA's principles require that scouts be faithful to their religious duties and respect the beliefs of others, how can the BSA have a membership policy which elevates some scout's religious values over other scout's religious values, with intent to enforce them on all scouts? The policy appears to contradict the principles.
Why is it okay for the BSA to choose to enforce one group's faith-based values on all scouts? Wouldn't this be like prohibiting all scouts from eating meat on Fridays during Lent, even if they are not Catholic? Or requiring all scouts to observe a Kosher diet, even if they are not Jewish? Or having all scouts fast during the daylight hours of Ramadan, even if they are not Muslim? If the BSA forces some rules on all scouts based on a particular faith tradition, shouldn't it force all other rules of that faith tradition on all scouts... including dietary restrictions? Even if this violates other scouts' religious values?
A scout raises the universal Scout Sign as the 2011 World Scout Jamboree gets under way in Sweden. The World Organization of the Scout Movement includes men and women, boys and girls from over 200 countries. Many WOSM organizations admit gay and lesbian Scouts.
By way of their religious emblem awards, the BSA recognizes the validity of spiritual traditions which welcome all people in faith, including gays and lesbians. They likewise recognize spiritual traditions which do not welcome gays and lesbians. I respect the BSA's inclusive spirit by allowing both groups to participate in Scouting.
The proposed BSA policy would not require any chartered organization to admit gays or lesbians. It only opens to the door to those who wish to do so. No one would force a scout or his parents to participate in a unit which does not share their spiritual beliefs. They can always choose another unit, start their own, or simply not participate in the BSA.
I invite a respectful and thoughtful conversation about this issue with careful study of the stated principles of the BSA and the World Organization of the Scouting Movement, of which the BSA is the U.S. representative. (That's why BSA members wear the purple World Crest on their uniforms.) I do not invite name-calling or personal attacks. Those have no place in scouting.
How can the BSA resolve the dissonance between their principles and their policy and escape the foggy arguments? The answer seems obvious. Principles withstand the test of time; polices change all the time.
Daniel M. Reck, M.S.Ed., is an Eagle Scout and has been a member of the Boy Scouts of America for over 25 years and is Managing Editor of Jamboree Today. In 2011, he served on the International Service Team of the 22nd World Scout Jamboree in Sweden, where he found that scouts of all faiths, sexes, cultures, and beliefs can co-exist in harmony even as the greater world sometimes tells them otherwise.