Over the past 103 years, America's churches have built the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) into the nation's most successful youth group — which makes it remarkable that the BSA stands ready to let gays join Scouting, thus publicly renouncing the wishes of some of its oldest and dearest friends.
A proposal to let the local organizations that run Scout units decide whether to accept homosexual boys and leaders — to be voted on by the BSA board of directors this week — is monumental not only for Scouting but for what it says about the state of gay rights in America.
Right from its start in 1910, American Scouting was built on a foundation of religious denominations. The bond starts with the Scout Law, which declares that "A Scout is reverent toward God." From there, Scouting provides churches with a ready-made youth program and encourages them to mold that program for their own religious educational purposes. A Scout troop gives churches a fun way to reinforce their teachings outside of the religion classes that so many kids attend only under parental duress.
The Lutheran Association of Scouters, for example, urges congregations to "use the programs and resources of the Boy Scouts of America as a means of extending their ministry to children, youth and families." Other denominations have their own Scouting associations, including Islamic and African Methodist Episcopal. A Scout can earn merit badges for religious achievements, such as becoming "best friends with Jesus" and "getting to know his rabbi."
This was "the genius of the Boy Scout Movement," wrote William Murray, an early Scout official who penned a history of the BSA. Because of Scouting's "willingness to submerge itself in the religious traditions of its sponsors, America's churches and synagogues enthusiastically embraced Scouting."
Thus today, 69.4 percent of Scout units are run by faith-based groups. The biggest among them (including the Roman Catholic, Southern Baptist and Mormon churches) have exercised considerable influence over BSA policies and practices by virtue of their membership numbers and their presence on the board of directors.
For instance, in the 1970s, the BSA's health and safety committee suggested producing materials to educate boys about sex abuse. Several churches leaders said no. Dr. Walter Menninger, a renowned physician who chaired the committee, later explained the phenomenon in a deposition for a sex abuse case against the BSA:
"There are a number of sponsoring organizations that ... want issues of moral, sexual aspects to be strictly part of the church's teaching." Churches, Dr. Menninger observed, "have a substantial percentage of registrations [of Scouts] and become a much more potent factor" in the organization's decisions.
Not all of those churches support the ban on gays, but some of the BSA's biggest "chartering organizations" are also among the nation's most vocal opponents of homosexual behavior. When the BSA went to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1990 to defend its right to exclude gays (Boy Scouts of America v. Dale), the National Catholic Committee on Scouting, the Methodist Men and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints submitted amicus briefs for the corporation. The Mormons threatened to pull out of Scouting if homosexuals were allowed in.
Churches have also backed the BSA in lawsuits by atheists who've been banned from Scouting. With such strong support from its core constituents, the BSA could shrug off the heat from civil rights lawyers and the mainstream media. It could not, however, withstand attacks from its own friends.
As public support for gay rights grew over the past several years — evidenced by opinion polls and the success of gay marriage laws in Maryland and elsewhere — gay rights advocates found a more receptive audience for their complaints about the BSA policy. Since last year, several noteworthy BSA donors (including Intel, UPS and local United Ways) dropped their support. Two BSA board members spoke out against the policy as well.
The cultural shift has also emboldened Scouts, parents and chartering organizations to openly object. Among the recent cases sparking public pushback against the policy: the denial of Eagle Scout rank to a California teen because he is gay; the dismissal of a den leader in Ohio because she is gay; and the threatened de-chartering of Maryland Cub Scout pack 442 for saying on its website that it "WILL NOT discriminate against any individual or family based on race, religion, national origin, ability, or sexual orientation." A group called Mormons Building Bridges collects stories about Mormon Scout units that disregard the exclusion of homosexuals.
For the BSA, the legal victory in the Dale case has become moot. Excluding gays is now bad business. The policy threatens donations and membership. It has split the BSA's constituents: some large churches holding to a moral principal versus a growing number of corporations, troop sponsors (including churches) and parents who call the policy morally intolerable.
The Boy Scouts of America has thrived because of its old friends. But if sticks with all of those old friends now, it will stick itself on the wrong side of history.
Journalist Patrick Boyle, a Maryland resident, is a longtime chronicler of the youth service field and author of "Scout's Honor: Sexual Abuse in America's Most Trusted Institution." His email is email@example.com.