What both conservatives and liberals have wrong about the BSA direction on membership, and why Dr. Gates’ plan is the best way forward.
The Boy Scouts of America is the best organization in which a young person can become involved. There’s been a mountain of evidence to support that assertion in addition to the hundreds of personal anecdotes from people like myself who can define Scouting as the most important influence in their lives.
Central to understanding the operation of the Boy Scouts is the chartered organization model. Many outsiders don’t realize that the BSA does not operate or directly support each individual unit — rather these troops, packs and crews are chartered to local organizations in the community which provide the leadership and support for the program. Each chartered organization selects the unit’s leadership (Scoutmaster, etc.) and guides the implementation of the program locally.
These community partnerships is the core of the BSA’s identity: it defines our role in supporting the community, engages positive role models to help young men develop in the program, and ensures that Scouting reflects the community’s values and priorities.
Last week, the BSA's President, Dr. Robert Gates, signaled a new direction about the movement's adult membership policy. The press coverage since Dr. Gates’ remarks would have you think that he is demanding every local Boy Scout unit accept gay leaders. That is simply not true, and his remarks have been twisted and distorted to fit the agendas of competing news organizations.
Both of them are wrong.
What Dr. Gates is proposing is that we do exactly what we’ve purported to do for over one hundred years: empower chartered organizations to select the leadership they think will best guide the young men in their programs.
If a unit is chartered by a Unitarian church, for example, where the minister might be gay and the membership could be full of openly gay couples, it’s reasonable that they be able to select a gay leader. It is in line with the models they set for their community, and the BSA ought to support that. If a gay person is able to minister that church, they should be able to participate in all of the ministry.
Likewise, if a Baptist church holds homosexuality as sinful, it ought to be able to not select gay leaders. Again: this is keeping with the role models they hold as a community and their beliefs.
The view on homosexuality within religions is evolving, and the BSA ought to be supportive of each religion expressing that view within the program, just as it supports each religion expressing its viewpoint via charter partners and religious awards.
Dr. Gates’ plan is not a step forward or a step backward. It’s the removal of a rule that is inconsistent with the power we rightly give chartered organizations to select their own leadership, and it is the right path for Scouting.
No matter where your views fall on the spectrum of gay rights, this is a great move for Scouting.
Throughout the years I’ve often reminded my friends who have left the program over its membership policies that whatever harm Scouting’s exclusion of gays did, it was far outweighed by the incredible benefits young people reap from its programs.
To those that support the BSA’s current policies: take heart. Nothing in your unit should change. Your chartered organization can still select its own leadership. You can still ensure that the role models for your children are consistent with your beliefs.
To those who pushed for change: this is great news. Scouting is becoming a more diverse organization, and there will be chartered organizations with units that allow you to establish the role models for your son that you believe are appropriate.
Finally: Scouting was, is, and remains the best program for a young person there is. No experience matches that sense of excitement a boy gets from earning a new award. No opportunity is more precious for a parent than helping their son build his first Pinewood Derby car. And no youth achievement carries more weight for the balance of person’s life than the title “Eagle Scout.”
From the far right to the extreme left, now is the time for all of us to come together under a membership policy that should be acceptable to everyone to do the only thing that matters: ensure that each and every day more kids are part of the Scouting program.