Last week I wrote a post positing whether Boy Scout units sponsored by the LDS Church would soon be able to have gay scout leaders. I asked the question in light of last week's news that the 77-member BSA executive board would consider dropping the BSA's long held ban on homosexual members at its meeting this week.
The Associated Press now reports that the executive board has backed away from making the decision itself. Rather, the board will prepare a proposal to be voted on at the national council meeting in May. The national council has some 1,400 voting members, including "volunteers who are elected National Officers and Executive Board members, regional presidents, the local council representatives, members at large, and honorary members."
Frankly, the proposal to change the current policy is going to be a hard sell for this broad group. The best chance of changing the policy anytime soon would have been at the executive board meeting, many of whose members operate in social circles where gay rights are accepted and championed. A rapidly organized grass roots movement to get the board to postpone its vote appears to have been effective.
While there will be strong support for changing the current policy among some members of the national council, the size of the voting group ensures that voters will more closely reflect the ideals of the base membership of the BSA. Some councils in more liberal enclaves currently do little to enforce the ban on homosexual members and would like the ban dropped. Other councils in more conservative areas where membership tends to be stronger see maintaining the ban as a matter of principle.
In an organization as large as the BSA, it seems best to allow the greatest input possible on a change of this nature, which many feel would fundamentally alter the organization. So a vote by the national council would seem more appropriate than a vote by the executive board, which makes up only about 5½ percent of the national council membership.
It is difficult for me to see how a proposal to change the current policy could pass a vote of the national council at present. Over the next three months voting members will undoubtedly be lobbied heavily by motivated people from both sides of the issue. But I would be surprised if the national council ended up voting in favor of the change this year.
As I noted in my previous post, the proposal would move decisions about membership from the national level to the local unit level, or more accurately, to the sponsoring organizations. The national BSA organization would discontinue its ban on homosexual members, but it would allow local units to maintain the ban.
This proposal is a compromise that has inherent weaknesses. As the AP notes, neither side felt that the proposal was acceptable. Gay rights activists are unwilling to countenance any ban on homosexual members at any level of the BSA, seeing it as akin to permitting racial discrimination. Traditionalists are unwilling to accept any weakening of the current national policy, seeing it as disloyalty to a moral imperative and forecasting mass defections of rank-and-file members if the policy is changed.
Opponents of dropping the national organization's ban feel that kicking the ban down to the local level is a cop out on centrally vital principles. Dropping the ban after standing so firm for so long would obviously invite pressure to compromise on other foundational principles that do not comport with secularist ideals.
Supporters of the compromise policy suggest that it would allow enough diversity among local units that parents could find a unit suited their ideals for their sons to attend. That argument appears to be insufficiently persuasive to appeal to many.
Blogger Jeff Westover thinks that it would be best for the BSA to stand firm on its principles and for those that disagree with those principles to establish their own competing organizations instead of attempting to overtake existing organizations. "Throw it out into the free marketplace," he writes. "Give people a choice. That would be the only fair way to see how society really feels about this issue."
I like this idea, but I doubt it would in any way satisfy gay activists. The most effective way to accomplish their agenda is to take down organizations that they believe stop them from achieving full social acceptance. Building your own organization is more work, takes much longer, and is unlikely to attract anywhere near the numbers of members that the BSA has.
Maintaining the BSA's ban on homosexual members is already having real financial consequences, as some corporate sponsors have withheld donations. It takes money to run the business side of the BSA. As long as the ban remains in place you can expect gay activists to lobby BSA institutional sponsors to quit donating. Increasing numbers of donors will no doubt oblige as the ban becomes increasingly controversial.
This will provide a good test for supporters of the ban. Will they be able to find ways to make up for lost contributions? If not, the BSA will either necessarily reduce its business footprint or else face financial default.
In the meantime, BSA membership continues its long-term decline. It is difficult for me to believe that dropping the ban would stop this decline, as some activists have suggested, since broader social factors that affect all civic organizations are at play: more technology that allows youth to socially advance without engagement in civic groups, far more options vying for the the discretionary time of youth, declining birth rates, etc.
It is also difficult to know what impact dropping the ban would have on BSA membership. It is possible that ban supporters are correct in forecasting mass defections. Only large institutional sponsors could say, and some of these are staying mum. There are likely enough experienced and dedicated scouters to form competing organizations.
The experience of the American Heritage Girls provides an interesting case study. Religious moms disgusted with the secularization of the Girl Scouts of the USA formed the AHG in 1995, using a lot of old Girl Scout program materials and adding in a healthy dose of evangelical Christian principles. While the organization has grown and has units in 48 states, its total membership is less than 1 percent of that of the GSUSA.
Perhaps the battle about the BSA ban on homosexual members—which many on both sides see as merely a surrogate for a much broader battle over social values—could ultimately create enough of a schism among BSA members that some large institutional sponsors might split off and form their own scouting movement that could immediately have hundreds of thousands of members, but none of the BSA's physical facilities and staff.
Right now it looks like the BSA is in a difficult position, sandwiched between social and financial pressure on one side and the principles of sponsoring organizations and rank-and-file members on the other side. Any move the BSA makes—even making no move at all—could end up leaving it crushed.
Friends of mine have suggested that it would be better for the BSA to die financially while standing on its principles than to sacrifice its principles to sustain financial funding. Those forecasting large membership defections suggest that appeasing donors enough to win the desired funding would end up being a Pyrrhic victory anyway.
Maybe these alternatives are too dire and reality will be far more benign. But that doesn't mean that it will necessarily be pleasant. The BSA might just slowly and quietly dissolve as moral decay advances. In his post, Jeff Westover foresees the day when we will nostalgically look back at scouting the same way we look longingly back at simpler times when men wore hats, people sat in the parlor, and front yards sported white picket fences.