Monday, October 11, 2010

The Boy Scout Conundrum

The Boy Scouts of America has presented me with an ethical conundrum for many years. On one hand, I know several people who were Boy Scouts growing up and have only positive things to say about the experience. I love the idea of taking kids out hiking and camping and making them just generally more prepared for the coming zombie apocalypse. It's fun. It builds character. The kids look adorable in their little uniforms.

On the other hand, the BSA has policies in place prohibiting homosexuals from holding leadership roles in its scouting program. Agnostics and atheists are prohibited from membership all together, on the grounds that these philosophies conflict with the values of 'Scout Oath and Law'. Membership status and leadership positions have been denied or revoked because of these policies.

You can see where the conflict is for me. I want to support the kids involved in the BSA, but I do not want to condone discrimination by supporting the organization itself. For a while this little bit of cognitive dissonance floated around in my skull, unaddressed, until a trip to Publix brought it to the front lines. The Boy Scouts were there, selling popcorn to raise money for a trip. Initially I was uninterested, but an adorable little boy with big, blue eyes came up to me and asked me to buy some so that his troop could go camping. I was cursing internally even as I smiled and said 'Yes, I'd love to'. I was cursing even more when I realized how expensive the popcorn was. But how could I turn him down? I had extra cash on hand, and he was so proud and excited to have actually sold something!

Unfortunately, actually putting my own money in the hands of the Boy Scouts increased the cognitive dissonance. So now I have to figure this out.

The BSA is a private organization. That means it can establish its own policies about who can join based on their right to 'freedom of association'. Those policies have been challenged several times, even at the level of the Supreme Court, and the right of the BSA to make and uphold those policies has been affirmed. The right of 'Freedom of Association' basically allows a private organization to exclude a person from membership when "the presence of that person affects in a significant way the group's ability to advocate public or private viewpoints." So what are these viewpoints that atheists and gays are infringing on by their involvement?

Scout Oath
On my honor I will do my best
To do my duty to God and my country
and to obey the Scout Law;
To help other people at all times;
To keep myself physically strong,
mentally awake, and morally straight.

Scout Law
A Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent.

Seems tenuous to me. It's true, your average atheist wont be too thrilled about regularly reciting an oath to 'do your duty to God'. I can see how that could potentially cause some conflict. Most of us certainly aren't what you would call 'reverent' either. Still doesn't seem like grounds for banning atheists and agnostics from membership. 'Morally straight', though? Is that all they have against the gays? That is at best a technicality.

It's a pile of crap, really. However, as long as the right to freedom of association is being interpreted the way it is in this country, they have the right to decide who gets to be a member of their organization. Unfortunately, the leaders of the BSA have chosen to be discriminative pig-dogs. As individuals, all we can really do to show our disapproval is not support the BSA.

But what about the children? They aren't necessarily being discriminatory, they just want to have fun! That's true, but the BSA is not the only way for that to happen. There are several alternative organizations that offer similar programs and benefits without the discrimination and hateful policies. Honestly, I feel like I made a mistake buying that popcorn. I wish I had instead donated that money to Navigators USA or Camp Fire USA. Because as cute as that little boy was, I'd rather support organizations that will teach him about tolerance and diversity.


  1. Thank you for the thoughtful post on a situation I deal with every day. I agree with your stance in part, except the part about feeling like you've made the wrong choice. Let me explain why.

    I am currently an employee of the Boy Scouts and came across your blog thru a Google alert for Boy Scouts. I wanted to comment and say that I, as a former Cub Scout, Boy Scout, camp staffer, camp director and current employee, also have a profound disagreement with the stance of the national organization. I also believe that in the coming years, this is something that will continue to effect the organization in a negative way, and that in those years, we will see that stance change.

    Allow me to speak for the councils I have worked for on a local level. In my years working for the BSA, I have never once experienced a single employee on that level who agrees with or carries out the policies as they have been stated in your blog. I have never seen it written anywhere to exclude homosexuals, and in fact have seen quite the opposite demonstrated in practice.

    I have worked with gay individuals as co-workers both at camp and as a full time BSA employee, and have had the pleasure of working with excellent unit leaders who are also gay. It has never crossed my mind to question their motivation or their right to be a part of this organization. On a local level in my experience, and for those who I have talked to around the country, this is a very familiar situation.

    On a local level in our packs, troops and crews, I have not seen any outright discrimination against homosexual scouts or leaders. The program isn't designed to come anywhere near sexual education on any youth level, although we do teach youth protection training to the adults. Even in the youth protection training, nowhere does it mention homosexuality as a threat or problem. Sexual education isn't our business. Cub Scouts (1st thru 5th grades) are by and large too young to come to that realization, and the Boy Scout program (6th grade and up) has no sex ed component, no merit badge for homophobia.

    What I am trying to impart is that while you may feel guilty or even wrong for purchasing that popcorn, know that that money goes to a local scout who will use it for camping trips and gear, and a local council that likely disagrees with the stance of the national office, both in idealogy and in practice.

    As an organization we are clinging to the last desperate shreds of an incredibly antiquated policy for reasons that, while I might venture an educated guess as to their origin, are unknown to me.

    Please enjoy your popcorn; the next generation of scouts who you've helped to support will likely be the ones who see a positive change take effect in this organization.

    P.S. Please know that the anonymity of this post is only for my own peace of mind, as many BSA employees have this same Google alert, including the rare few who may not agree with my stance. Please, if you'd like to discuss this further, let me know how I can contact you and I will do so.

  2. Wow, I definitely appreciate your insight in this matter. I apologize for any difficulty you may have had in posting; Blogger interpreted the length and anonymity of your post to mean it was spam, and I had to manually approve it.

    It's good to know that even though these discriminatory policies are in place at the national level they are not always enforced at the local level. Apparently it is up to individuals to evaluate their own local branches of the BSA and determine if that is something they want to support.

    I am curious though, while your post certainly addresses prejudice against homosexuality within your branch of the BSA, you do not mention your groups approach to agnostics and atheists. Have you observed or experienced any discrimination against these groups?

  3. Again, no. Although that is a little bit more clearly cut, with the references to God in the Oath and reverent in the Law.

    I will say that for the most part, there isn't any discrimination on that level either. There are religious awards to be earned if desired, but they are not mandatory.

    Many of our units are sponsored by churches or church groups, so there is often an involvement with that group and the church. Religion is indeed part of the program on a few levels, but again, most kids join scouts to go camping, not go to church. Because scouts have the ability to join any unit, they can choose between one that is closely affiliated with a church and one that is not, if the idea of a close tie to a religious organization doesn't sit well.

    In a very broad sense, the religious aspect is explained that you should have a religion, not any specific one. I consider myself somewhere between Buddhist and atheist, but it's not something I advertise. I was in a unit that was associated with a church, and we helped them with fundraisers etc. As a kid I never really took issue with this fact, as the church gave us a place to meet; if I had, I could have left to another troop.

    The religious aspect you bring up is probably more of a sticking point for some, but it's also something that really isn't discussed. While I know quite a few gay people in scouts, I know barely anyone who is a professed atheist. Again, it's not something that most kids decide on until much older, and is often undiscussed. It is more a part of the program than sex ed (which has no part), but again, it's not something that's really looked at as a membership stumbling block.

  4. Spring and Fall, to a Young Child

    Margaret, are you grieving
    Over Goldengrove unleaving?
    Leaves, like the things of man, you
    With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
    Ah! as the heart grows older
    It will come to such sights colder
    By and by, nor spare a sigh
    Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
    And yet you will weep and know why.
    Now no matter, child, the name:
    Sorrow's springs are the same.
    Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
    What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
    It is the blight man was born for,
    It is Margaret you mourn for.