Scouts' honor

The leaders of the Boy Scouts of America are expected to vote tomorrow on whether to scrap the organization's long-standing national ban on admitting gay Scouts and Scout leaders, and to replace it with a policy that allows the religious and civic organizations that sponsor individual Scout units to set their own rules on the issue. The ban on gay Scouts is an anachronism that flies in the face of the overdue societal trend toward greater inclusiveness, tolerance and acceptance of diversity. We hope the group's leaders will seize the opportunity presented by this vote to do what's morally and ethically right for the 2.7 million member group whose values have shaped the character of generations of American boys and young men.

In recent years, the Scouts have come under increasing criticism for explicitly excluding gay young people and their families. Individual Scouts and Scout troops have openly protested the ban on their websites or in petition drives aimed at persuading large corporate sponsors to disassociate themselves from the discriminatory policy. Their efforts have pressured the group to open its ranks to all qualified individuals regardless of sexual orientation, a stance the Girl Scouts of America has maintained since 1992.


Opposition to accepting gay boys has come mainly from the more conservative of the religious organizations that sponsor Scout troops. Of the more than 110,000 Scouting units across the U.S., nearly 70 percent are chartered by religious organizations, not all of which object to the inclusion of gay Scouts. However, the Catholic Church, Southern Baptists and Mormon churches are among those prominently involved in setting national policy — and in insisting that the ban against gays remain in effect. They have repeatedly threatened to end their involvement in Scouting if gays are allowed to participate.

In practice, what that has meant is that gay Scouts and Scout leaders who want to take part in Scouting activities have had to hide their sexual orientation the same way gays in the military were once forced to lie about who they were. And the lying didn't end there. Scout troops that didn't agree with the ban had to pretend they didn't know there were gays in their midst or find other means of dissembling to protect openly gay members. All of that contravened the first tenet of the Scouting creed: A Scout should be trustworthy.


That the Scouts' national leadership has decided to reconsider the ban on gays at this moment is almost certainly due to pressure from corporate donors who are increasingly uncomfortable being seen as supporting an institution that openly practices discrimination. Over the last year or so, a number of large corporate contributors, including Intel and UPS, have publicly announced their intention to end their support of the Scouts unless the policy is changed.

Their actions undoubtedly influenced President Barack Obama's decision to add his voice to the debate on Sunday before the Super Bowl, when he reaffirmed his support for equal rights for all people regardless of sexual orientation. "My attitude is that gays and lesbians should have access and opportunity, the same way everybody else does, in every institution and walk of life," he said. "The Scouts are a great institution that are promoting young people and exposing them to opportunities and leadership that will serve people for the rest of their lives. And I think that nobody should be barred for that."

While several leading Republicans, including Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, have denounced any move that would change the Boy Scouts' strict no-gays policy, we hope wiser heads will prevail. The proposed change wouldn't force church-sponsored Scout units to adopt policies that went against their religious traditions. But it would simply prevent them from imposing those views on others who don't share their beliefs.

That's not a perfect solution, and it would still leave some Scout units free to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation. But given the Scouts' present reliance on church-sponsored groups for such a large number of troops, it may be the most practical approach available at this point. It would represent an important step toward equality in line with changes in attitudes toward gays in all aspects of American life, and it would doubtless spark a broader discussion within the group of its mission and goals. A century after its founding, admitting all worthy members, regardless of sexual orientation, could be a first step along that path.