Sometime today, the National Executive Board of the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) will vote to end its archaic policy prohibiting gay boys from becoming scouts, a national restriction that also bans gay and lesbian adults from serving in leadership roles. In part because of the BSA’s diffusion of authority, with 300 self-supporting councils, the question whether or not to discriminate against adult leaders will fall to local scouting groups.
On a national level, the BSA’s policy of optional discrimination is disappointing, if not untenable. Is anti-gay bigotry a character trait consistent with good scouting or no? Best intentions may inform the national decision, but it’s just the first step. In a few years, Boy Scout execs will look back at the pick-your-own-values approach and cringe.
The systemic challenge for the BSA is the independent chartered organizations that sponsor each unit (the Cub Scout packs, the troops, exploring posts and venturing crews.) The chartered organizations include PTAs, VFWs, Lions and Rotary Clubs, church congregations and others. The organizational diversity reflects the American mosaic: Buddhists, Methodists, Muslims, Quakers, the Grange, hospitals and Indian Tribal Councils. Because sponsors are responsible for approving the appointment of all registered scout leaders, however, a few religious denominations are unwilling to accept gays and lesbians. It’s another reason parents need to pick troops and posts that align with their values.
Northwesterners can be grateful for the farsighted leadership of the Mount Baker Council of the BSA and to the south, Chief Seattle. Both councils play a meaningful role in shaping the leadership and citizenship skills of thousands of young people. Boy Scouts from the Mount Baker Council explore sublime places like the North Cascades and, along the way, develop values of honesty, responsibility, charity and friendliness. Boy Scout merit badges test intellect and problem solving and often shape future careers. In the end, most boy scouts fall in love with the outdoors and work diligently to protect it. (Consider, for example, former Gov. Dan Evans, a lifelong conservationist.)
Local councils will, we believe, reflect the inclusive values of a state that voted for marriage equality. Boy Scouts should be emblematic of tolerance and plurality, defining characteristics of the Pacific Northwest. The BSA’s policy shift may also encourage equality-minded Washingtonians to contribute again to the scouts. The watershed will be the day that the United Way of Snohomish County, which adopted a strict non-discrimination policy in 2000, approves a grant to the Mount Baker Council (the BSA hasn’t received funding since 2001.) We are almost there.