Scouts' shift on gays almost inevitable

Posted Tuesday, Feb. 05, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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For more than a century, the Boy Scouts of America has positioned itself as a character-building organization that's wholesome, honorable and a symbol of the best that American society has to offer.

To many people, the rank of Eagle Scout is a credential that signifies utmost integrity.

But for most of its history, the BSA also has actively discriminated against some boys who want to become scouts. This week, during an executive board meeting, the Irving-based organization's leadership is wrestling with whether a policy that bans gay members and leaders is consistent with what scouting wants to be.

In 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court by a 5-4 vote ruled that the Constitution does not prohibit a private organization like the scouts from deciding the scope of its membership, a basic element of the right of association. But the fact that it legally can ban gays does not mean that it must.

As Harvard law professor Cass Sunstein pointed out in an opinion column, "social movements and evolving social values are responsible for many rights that Americans now take for granted." (

How will the Scouts respond to evolving social values?

The organization said the board will consider dropping a national prohibition and let individual troops decide whether to accept gays. The fact is, some troops already do, ban or not. But many of them continue to support the national group's long-standing argument that homosexuality doesn't align with scouting's aim to be "morally straight."

What BSA leaders must decide is where scouting should stand in a society whose views about gays are significantly changing.

The meeting is closed to the public, but news reports have said a vote is expected today. There are risks and rewards with whichever direction the board goes.

Almost 70 percent of Scout units are sponsored by faith-based groups, The New York Times reported, and many of those are churches that do not want to allow openly gay leaders or troop members. But some churches, corporate leaders, BSA board members and, notably, President Barack Obama, support dropping the ban.

A straightforward policy of nondiscrimination would be true to the American principle of equal opportunity. But at least giving troops the option to decide for themselves would be a major shift -- and would let momentum toward the ideal build within the organization.

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