THERE ARE gay Boy Scouts earning merit badges and the respect of their fellow members in troops across the country, and there will be as long as the organization exists. The question is how honest they can be about it.
Next week the Boy Scouts of America will reconsider its long-held restriction on gay members. The national organization’s current policy is akin to the military’s defunct “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, barring membership “to individuals who are open or avowed homosexuals or who engage in behavior that would become a distraction to the mission” of the group. A policy of this sort has been the Boy Scouts’ avowed position since at least 1978, and a 5-to-4 Supreme Court majority deemed it legal in 2000. In other words, it is up to the organization to end its official discrimination, and it’s long past time.
The Boy Scouts’ national board will vote Wednesday on whether to replace the ban with a policy allowing groups that sponsor local troops to decide whether to admit gay members. Churches or other civic groups that do not tolerate homosexuality could still require troops they sponsor to discriminate. Others could be more welcoming. Boys and their parents, meanwhile, could find a troop that best fits their views.
This cautious plan is not exactly bold moral leadership. The national scouting organization appears to be bowing to pressure from public petition drives and big donors who oppose discrimination, while trying not to alienate socially conservative members and sponsors. The new policy would be a positive step — but only one — toward promoting scouting’s values of honesty and inclusiveness.
Critics point out that a patchwork approach would complicate regular events such as summer camp or camporees, in which many troops participate in merit-badge workshops or wilderness skills competitions. Certainly, it won’t always be comfortable for openly gay scouts. But we hope that their participation will help change scouting’s culture for the better, making it easier for the national organization to finally condemn discrimination, as it ultimately must, instead of continuing to condone it. Donors, too, should keep the pressure on.
Over the past few years, the country has shifted, much faster than once seemed possible, away from centuries of injustice based on sexual orientation. There can be only one moral and practical conclusion to this process — an end to official discrimination against gays and lesbians. Since the Boy Scouts are a venerable American institution and still do a lot of good, we are rooting for them to get to the right place.