Scouts and equality

One of the first things that an incoming Boy Scout must learn is the Scout Law. It's become so famous that many people outside the organization likely recognize it. "A Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent."

There is no line about Boy Scouts being exclusionary, nor one suggestion that the organization discriminate. There isn't even a mention of sexuality. To be kind is to be kind. To think of Boy Scouts as some narrow-minded, anti-gay organization is anathema to how many of us have experienced scouting in our lives.

Yet that's where the Boy Scouts of America stand. The BSA's ban on gay Scouts and adult volunteers is a throwback to a different era, when homosexuality was little understood and gays subject to outrageous discrimination. It is time the organization started fully living up to the ideals of the Scout Law.

As it happens, that opportunity will present itself Thursday, as 1,460 BSA delegates meeting in Dallas will vote on a resolution that would allow openly gay young people to join the Boy Scouts. Approving it would represent an important step forward in social justice, not only for the Boy Scouts and the 2.6 million youngsters who participate in BSA programs but for the nation.

Opinion surveys show most Americans support lifting the ban, not only for Boy Scouts but for the organization's volunteers — something that is, unfortunately, not on the delegates' agenda this week. Surely, in a time when even the U.S. military has come to recognize the harm in discriminating against gays and lesbians, the BSA delegates can, too.

Admittedly, this is a controversial choice for an organization with strong ties to religion, particularly Catholic and fundamentalist Christian faiths. A large number of Boy Scout troops are sponsored by local churches. The meeting in Dallas has been marked by protests, and some believe tens of thousands of youngsters will be withdrawn from scouting if the resolution is approved.

On the other hand, the Boy Scouts' anti-gay policies have already caused significant backlash for the nonprofit group. Membership has been in decline for years. Corporations have come under pressure to withdraw support. Leaders ranging from billionaire Bill Gates to President Barack Obama and his 2012 Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, have supported ending the gay membership ban.

The opportunities presented by scouting may be more important than ever. Young people can benefit from an organization that offers kids a chance to get outdoors, camp, hike and explore nature, learn about leadership and teamwork and benefit from adult role models. Surely, that's more productive than sitting around playing video games or otherwise contributing to the nation's obesity epidemic.

To earn scouting's highest honor, the Eagle Scout, requires an extraordinary effort of progressing through the lower ranks, earning 21 merit badges, and helping lead one's troop. Only 7 percent of scouts achieve it. Many corporate CEOs were once Eagle Scouts. Why should a young man be denied that opportunity because he is gay?

Perhaps there are some parents who, for whatever reason, would rather their sons were never exposed to someone who is gay. To that, we can only say they are not living in the real world. Worse, they are teaching their kids that it is perfectly fine to discriminate. Gays and lesbians live among us and always have. They are represented among our families, our friends, our neighbors, our colleagues. To exclude such individuals from the Boy Scouts — or to otherwise try to "shelter" our children from them — is profoundly misguided.

In Maryland, we have learned that equality is a good thing — as last year's referendum in which voters overwhelmingly approved gay marriage reminded us. The next step is for that message to filter down to institutions like the Boy Scouts, which purport to embrace American values like kindness, friendliness and helpfulness.

Today, a century-old organization is in danger of being discarded because it has failed to keep up with the times. A vote in favor of the BSA resolution would be an important step in the right direction. Otherwise, the once-proud organization will merely be seen as synonymous with discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and not with the ideals of the Scout Law.

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