Tuesday, April 23, 2013

No Gay Scout Leaders, but Gay Scouts?

In a January post and a February post I discussed the recent attempt made by the Boy Scouts of America executive board to drop the organization's long held policy against allowing homosexual members. That proposal ultimately failed, but the board said it would offer a new proposal at the organization's national council meeting that begins May 20.

In the interim, the BSA sent out a survey about the current membership policy to over one million scouting families, volunteers, donors, and interested parties (see CNN 3/13/13 article) and tallied the results. Some criticized the survey as being designed to drive to a predetermined result. The BSA has so far offered only a weak response to this charge.

After analyzing the results of the survey, the executive board has now proposed lifting the ban on homosexual membership for youth members under 18, while maintaining the current policy for adult leaders (see Fox News 4/19/13 article). This proposal was designed to account for the fact that it was the only potential change of the current policy upon which there was broad consensus among survey respondents.

As a scouting leader I have received and reviewed the actual text of the proposal that will be voted on next month. The proposal would indeed drop any requirements regarding sexual orientation from the BSA membership policy for youth members under 18, while maintaining the current policy of denying membership to adults that are openly homosexual.

The policy expressly states that any kind of sexual activity among youth members, heterosexual or homosexual, is incompatible with the values of scouting. So youth that engage in homosexual or heterosexual activity would be subject to disciplinary action, perhaps even revocation of membership.

The materials I received accompanying the proposal went into some detail about the survey.
  • Most respondents (61%) favored keeping the ban, while a much smaller minority (34%) favored dropping the ban.
  • Most teens in the program disagree with the current policy.
  • Younger parents were less opposed to changing the current policy than were older parents.
  • Most chartered organizations (72%) wanted to keep the current policy.
  • Big business donors were generally in favor of dropping the ban, but most major donors (51%) favored keeping the ban, while a smaller number (33%) would like the ban dropped.
  • Most councils (51%) want to keep the current policy, while others (38.5%) would like it changed. Some major councils remained neutral because they could not ascertain the position of their major sponsoring organization (see below).
  • Most regions (75%) favor no change to the policy.
  • An overwhelming majority of all groups felt that it would be wrong to deny a boy advancement to the Eagle Scout rank solely based on his sexual orientation.
  • Analysts estimate that dropping the ban wholesale would result in a membership loss of 100,000-350,000 members, while only picking up 10,000-20,000 new members. They believe that adopting the new proposal would result in a few thousand defections.
  • The position of LDS Church, the "BSA's largest chartered organization" is "unknown at this time." The church says it will take the time it needs to fully study the proposal (see KSL article) and has previously said that no one should assume that they know the church's position on the matter.
Implied in the materials I received is the notion that attitudes regarding homosexuality are rapidly evolving to greater acceptance, and that, while adults in the scouting family are significantly behind the general public in this regard, their attitudes can be expected to morph accordingly as the old duffers die off. It seems that BSA administrators are saying that the proposal to completely drop the ban came just a few years too early.

A question and answer sheet addressed some concerns, while seeming to dodge or ignore others. On the question of what would become of a homosexual youth that turns 18 and wishes to become an adult scout leader, the fact sheet simply states that all adult volunteers will have to comply with the membership policy. In other words, membership would be denied.

Critics of the proposal bring up several concerns, including the slippery slope argument. As soon as a homosexual adult that has been a model scout as a youth wishes to become an adult leader, there will be fresh pressure to change the policy for adults. "How can they say that I was a great Eagle Scout and senior patrol leader, but that I would be an unacceptable assistant scoutmaster?" he will ask.

Family Research Council President Tony Perkins argues that the proposed policy is incoherent (see Christian Post 4/21/13 article). The scouts, he says, would be sending the message that "homosexuality is morally acceptable until a boy turns 18…"

Perkins has a point, but proponents of the change explain that youth are in a developmental state where their sexual identities are not well formed. They should not be punished for experiencing feelings of same-sex attraction if they remain chaste.

More ominously,
"Perkins also warns that the resolution would make BSA vulnerable to lawsuits because it would no longer uphold its argument that considering homosexual conduct as immoral is a core value, which helped BSA win in the U.S. Supreme Court."
This makes the slippery slope argument seem more real. It appears that the policy change would deliberately invite challenges to the remaining adult membership restriction, with the likely result being that the rule would ultimately be dropped. (The statements I received anticipate no change in current legal defense methods even if the policy is changed.) If you can't get through the front door, try the back. Proponents of changing the ban have offered no rebuttal to this charge, as far as I can tell.

The compromise proposal would satisfy almost nobody that is passionate about this topic. One side sees it as inadequate, while the other side sees it as a weasely retreat from basic principles. Neither side sees it as a successful Solomonic decision.

Gay rights activists could easily turn Perkins' statement around, saying that the BSA would be sending a message that discrimination against homosexuals is morally wrong until a boy turns 18. Then it is not only acceptable, it is imperative. A homosexual youth operating under a cloud of impending disapproval would in essence be a second class citizen in the organization.

Many scouting leaders with whom I have discussed this matter feel that changing the policy would be a fundamental violation of scouting principles. After having insisted for so long that the current policy is an essential part of scouting virtues, dropping it now in the face of financial challenges would send the message that the principles espoused by the BSA are for sale. Seeing the organization crumble to a shadow of its current stature while standing firm would be preferable to many of these volunteers.

Both sides could easily say that the current policy is either wrong and has always been wrong, or it is right and has always been right. How can it be half wrong and half right at the same time?

One scouting friend opines that it really doesn't matter what the BSA does at this point; the damage to the scouting brand has been done. After standing so steadfast for so long, just entertaining the idea of dropping the ban demonstrated that anything the scouts claim is a bedrock principle is actually up for grabs. After all, what is the value of a principle if one dumps it as soon as serious sacrifices are required? "It will take a generation or more to rebuild the brand, if that is even possible at this point," says my friend.

From my vantage point, it is difficult to see how adopting the new proposal could turn out well for the BSA. Gay rights activists will not stop their crusade until the BSA fully accepts their agenda. Conservative churches that sponsor many scouting units will not accept the most salient parts of that agenda in the foreseeable future. This impasse will ensure perpetual controversy that will feed the media for years to come.

I have no idea how the 1,400 member national council will vote next month. No doubt the media will closely watch and heavily report on the outcome. Regardless of how the vote goes, the BSA is in for a long round of withering pressure. It seems that this will only further drive down declining membership enrollment. I suspect that in a few years the BSA will be a very different entity than it is today. Likely smaller and even less popular.

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