After Boy Scouts of America reaffirms exclusion of gays, the biggest leadership question remains


(Marvin Joseph/THE WASHINGTON POST)

What may be most interesting about the news that the Boy Scouts of America has reaffirmed its exclusion of gay scouts and scout leaders is what will happen next.

AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson is one of two Boy Scouts of America board members who supports amending the policy, and he is on track to become president of the Scout’s national board in 2014. Stephenson, as well as fellow board member James Turley, the CEO of Ernst & Young, have spoken out in support of diversity and inclusion for the Boy Scouts. In a statement released in June, Turley said “the membership policy is not one I would personally endorse” and “I intend to continue to work from within the BSA Board to actively encourage dialogue and sustainable progress.” Stephenson, meanwhile, has said “we don't agree with every policy of every organization we support,” and said he encourages change “from within.”

If indeed Stephenson becomes the head of the Boy Scouts’ board in the next couple of years, he will face a unique challenge.

The Supreme Court may have ruled in 2000 that the Boy Scouts can exclude gays, and the Scouts’ policy may have been emphatically reaffirmed on Tuesday. But public sentiment on gay rights is moving in the other direction. For example, polls regularly show that a majority of Americans support the ability for gays to serve openly in the military, and the number of Americans that support same-sex marriage is also increasing. Even if the Boy Scouts are a private organization able to make its own rules, there’s little question that the general trend line of public opinion is toward more inclusion, not less.

What’s more, membership in the Scouts is down. A 2010 story in The New York Times reported that in the previous decade, membership had dropped by more than 16 percent. The Scouts’ 2011 annual report lists membership at 2.7 million. As the organization’s future leader, Stephenson will need to determine whether the Scouts’ policy is helping or hurting.

Is the policy keeping membership from eroding? (Some say the support of the Roman Catholic and Mormon churches is necessary for mainting membership, and the Boy Scouts says a majority of members support the current policy.) Or, on the other hand, could it be contributing to a gradual defection rate from families who think the organization is out of touch?

Stephenson’s job, of course, will be to guide the board in a way that reflects the Scouts’ mission and values. But it will also be to help ensure the future of an organization that has seen its membership levels decline. Public opinion is already shifting toward more inclusive policies. What will those numbers say in 2014 and beyond?

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.

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