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?
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.
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.