Every February since I was eleven years old, my thoughts turn to the Boy Scouts of America. February is the month in which Scouting celebrates its birth as a beloved American institution. But Scouting did not originate in the United States. It took shape from the vision and dedication of a highly decorated British soldier, Robert Stephenson Smyth Baden-Powell. His birthday was February 22, 1857. He is credited with founding the Scouting movement in 1908.
February was the month when Scout troops sponsored by religious institutions would observe special Sabbath services in honor of Scouting’s anniversary. The connection between religion and scouting was usually benign. It was not unusual for troops sponsored by churches and synagogues to welcome boys from other religious traditions. As long as each boy could affirm to uphold the twelfth point of the Scout Law, “A Scout is Reverent”, it did not seem to matter to which faith his reverence was directed.
Such admirable interfaith understanding lasted until the 1990’s, when the national Scouting organization decided to take a firm stand against gay scouts and gay scout leaders. Pushed by sponsoring denominations with openly anti-gay policies, the issue went all the way to the United States Supreme Court. In its 2,000 5 to 4 decision the Supreme Court accepted The National Scouting organization’s claim that being anti-gay was a core part of its mission. With that Supreme Court decision, I turned my back on the Boy Scouts.
It was not an easy decision. I bought into the entire scouting package. I never missed a troop meeting, campout or District event. I spent every summer at Scout camp, including my last year as an assistant scoutmaster and swimming instructor. Scouting helped me to become who and what I am. I am an Eagle Scout. I am also disgusted.
You see, the leadership of the Scouting movement is now going to leave the question of discrimination against gays in the hands of local Scout councils like our own in St. Louis. It means that councils can decide not to discriminate against gays. That is terrific news! It also means that if councils are subject to pressure from powerful religious denominations that are anti-gay the ongoing discrimination will stay in place. That is not great news. But the National organization now gets to claim that it is not anti-gay. It makes it so much easier for scout fundraisers to finesse the discrimination question with potentially generous foundations whose internal rules prohibit discrimination against gays. “It’s not our policy, it’s the policy of the local council,” they will be able to say with an almost straight face.
The first point of the Scout Law is, “A Scout is trustworthy.” Either a core part of scouting’s mission is being anti-gay, as they argued in court, or Scout leaders lied to the Justices of the highest court in the land. It is time for the Boy Scouts of America apologize for the lie and to take a firm and clear stand against anti-gay discrimination everywhere, not just in some places, where it is convenient.