Boy Scouts hold signs outside the Boy Scouts of America National Headquarters in Irving, Tex., on Wednesday. (Richard Rodriguez/Associated Press) Boy Scouts hold signs outside the Boy Scouts of America National Headquarters in Irving, Tex., on Wednesday. (Richard Rodriguez/Associated Press)

Do the Boy Scouts of America offer a merit badge for bigotry? If so, the Scouts standing outside the national headquarters earlier this week certainly deserve one. They carried placards opposing the proposed lifting of the ban on gay members. “STAND STRONG” one of them said, and “KEEP SCOUTS MORALLY STRAIGHT,” another said. One of the kids was a wee Cub Scout. It seems you cannot learn your bigotry early enough.

The proposed change in rule would not, mind you, have opened the flood gates to little homosexuals in uniform; it merely would have allowed local groups, many of them sponsored by churches and religious organizations, to decide the matter for themselves. This would have allowed local control of bigotry and ignorance which is, as we all know, the American Way.

The picture of the placard-bearing Scouts is downright revolting. It reminded me of the kids who, with the parental guidance we all need, showed up in the civil right era to heckle or even spit upon black kids who were attempting to desegregate some school in the South. The early inculcation of bigotry and ignorance is often downright awesome. A nine-, ten- or eleven-year-old can spew venom with aplomb and hate as if they already understood the purported basis for the hate — the alleged inferiority of those who had courage, determination and poise to run a gauntlet of yellers and spitters. Those kids taught a lesson I will never forget.

It is not much different with the Scouts. There is no reason outside of bigotry and ignorance to ban homosexuals from the movement. There is no basis to fear child molestation — a common concern — since homosexuals are no more likely to be pedophiles than heterosexuals. The real fear here is of the unknown and if the Scouts taught something about life and not just what grows on the north side of a tree, then they would be doing society a service. Instead, the organization persists, at least for the next several months, in imposing a rule that is grossly insulting and indefensible.

I am former Boy Scout myself. I didn’t much like it. (I flamed out at the square knot.) I was a Cub Scout, too, and I didn’t like that either. I even went on to become an Explorer Scout, but that was more of the same — knots and insects and sleeping on the ground. But I recognize the value of the program and the good it can do. But its overarching message at the moment is institutional homophobia and that, simply, is not permissible.

The corporate sponsors who are now uneasy with their sponsorship ought to simply pull out. I know this issue is complicated since it involves religious belief, but it is not insupportable — and it does come down to a basic question of tolerance. The corporations who think they’re supporting Scouting, have it wrong. Until the ban on homosexuals is repealed, they’re actually supporting bigotry. If they doubt that, they can look at the picture I saw: Uniformed Boy Scouts supporting hate.

Richard Cohen writes a weekly political column for The Washington Post.