After more than a century of kicking people out for the “crime” of being gay, the Boy Scouts of America’s national executive committee voted unanimously this week on a resolution to end itd controversial ban on LGBT adults from employment and membership. With the resolution awaiting ratification July 27, it seemed to many that equality in scouting might finally have been within reach. As critics looked at the fine print, however, they found that this celebrated step forward was, in fact, a monumental step back. The big questions before us now: Why does the new policy still discriminate, and where do we go from here?
In the resolution, the executive committee said, “Scouting respects and defends the rights of others to practice their own religious beliefs without criticism. … The Boy Scouts of America believes it should allow members and parents to choose a Scouting unit, chartered to an organization with similar beliefs, that best meets the needs of their families,” even if those chartering organizations wish to continue excluding LGBT adults. That means that the Boy Scouts is endorsing a policy change at the national level, but will allow troops at the local level to ignore the policy outright.
To be clear: That’s not a step forward. It’s a major step back to what happened in 2013, when the organization voted to admit gay and bisexual youth but retained a ban on LGBT adults. Then, too, a change in the national policy that allowed for continued discrimination was met with celebration. As a voice for equality in scouting, I’m not celebrating. The new policy is a replay of the same old song.
Why, you might ask, would the BSA do such a thing? It’s hard to know for sure, but the effects are highly suggestive. This type of superficial policy change would help to rebrand the Boy Scouts as a friendlier, more inclusive organization. That’s a tremendous help when you consider that the organization has been hemorrhaging members and corporate sponsors over their discriminatory policy for years.
This superficial change would also help to consolidate the group's conservative base and insulate it from further legal attacks. It placates troops and sponsors threatening to take their members and funding dollars elsewhere should they be required to stop discriminating. And by passing the buck onto individual troops, BSA national will be able to reduce its exposure to additional lawsuits, like the one they now face in New York to determine if they are guilty of employment discrimination.
In short, the “new” policy let’s them have it both ways. It’s a step forward for liberals and those of us who seek change but stops short of creating the kind of real change that would further alienate the BSA's conservative core.
This “new” policy has been carefully packaged in the now familiar veil of protecting religious freedom. “The message of Scouting,” according to the resolution, “is one of toleration and respect for different religious and moral conclusions in this matter, acknowledging that reasonable minds may honorably differ. … Any effort to exclude or penalize chartering organizations based on their beliefs or policies regarding marriage, family, or sexuality is contrary to the Boy Scouts of America’s commitment to religious freedom.”
That sounds well and good, but let’s not fool ourselves. There is nothing “honorable” or “reasonable” in giving a pass to those who want to discriminate. Allowing people to continue to be attacked for the “crime” of being different and then dressing it up in coded language with dubious claims of “religious freedom” only hurts those the Boy Scouts claims to serve. It hurts the movement for LGBT equality by enabling those who profit by oppressing others to continue doing so with institutional support. It also sends a dangerous message: that it’s OK to compromise on the rights of an already oppressed minority.
By calling the current policy “unsustainable,” Robert Gates has made it clear that he hopes to usher in a new era for the Boy Scouts, and that’s the kind of leadership that’s desperately needed. But, as Human Rights Campaign president Chad Griffin said, “Writing in an exemption for troops organized by religious organizations undermines the potentially historic nature of [Monday’s] vote. As we have said countless times, half measures are unacceptable and discriminatory exemptions have no place in the Boy Scouts.”
The BSA should know that it can’t have it both ways, and the time for half measures is over. It’s time for real change, once and for all.