Trouble for the Boy Scouts

The Boy Scouts of America, long considered a wholesome activity for young boys that taught them useful skills and bred good citizenship, is now under siege. I was never a boy scout myself but if I recall correctly, it had a policy of requiring them do at least one good deed every day and the William stories by Richmal Crompton would have as a recurring comic plot line the mayhem that would ensure when her title character would fall behind in his good deeds and try to get back of schedule by cramming many good deeds into one day.

This article recounts the history of the organization, saying that from the beginning, the overarching ethos was an “ethnically, neutral American chauvinism” that sought to transcend the existing denominational strife between Christian sects and promoted the idea that good citizenship required an appreciation of one’s obligation to god. Catholics and Mormons, at that time viewed with suspicion by the dominant Protestants, were allowed to form troops and the national Jamborees would see all of them participating together.

Initially, the organization did not take a stand on sexuality, leaving the topic to be discussed by boys’ families. But with the 1970s came sweeping changes in cultural mores and more openness about the existence of gays in society and this led in 1978 to the first statement by leaders that homosexuality was not appropriate for leadership in scouting.

The BSA has been subjected to various court challenges to its discriminatory policies against homosexuals and atheists. They won a major victory in 2000 when the US Supreme Court ruled that it was a private organization and not a public accommodation and thus not bound by the anti-discrimination rules governing the latter. Following that, on February 6, 2002, “the National Executive Board of the BSA passed a formal resolution that expressly excluded atheists and homosexuals from membership. Furthermore, the Executive Board resolved that all Councils and sponsoring organizations must sign a statement to the effect that they will enforce all policies of the BSA including the exclusion of homosexuals and atheists as members. All those applying for membership must also agree to abide by these policies.”

But other cases have exposed an ugly history of abuse and cover-up that draws comparisons with the Catholic church. The release of the damning ‘perversion files‘ is the latest embarrassment.

Similarly, their policies against allowing atheists and agnostics into the group are also under pressure because that makes it presumptively a religious organization and thus runs into Establishment Clause trouble when it seeks taxpayer and other government support for its activities.

But the legal issues may be the least of the troubles for the BSA. Times are changing and attitudes along with it. Their anti-gay policies in particular are changing the image of the group from that of a wholesome, character building organization to that of a narrow-minded intolerant club. Being associated with the group is increasingly seen as negative and business and civic groups are breaking ties with it. The United Parcel Service (UPS) has cut funding for the BSA. So has Intel. And the Cleveland United Way has removed it from the list of organizations it funds.

The BSA will be forced to change its policies on accepting homosexuals and atheists and agnostics into its membership and leadership or continue to lose members and funding. The only question is when they realize this.