The Cushman Watt Scout Center, headquarters of the Boy Scouts of America for the Los Angeles Area Council, is shown in Los Angeles, California in this October 18, 2012 file photograph
Earlier this week, the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) announced that its national board would be considering a policy to end the organization’s high-profile ban on gay members and leaders. While the move would only shift the ability to discriminate from the national level to the local level, it’s an important step in the right direction, and the BSA should be commended for an improvement—however marginal—in its policy. Speaking as a person of faith, this policy change is long overdue, but is still not enough.
The World Organization of the Scout Movement (WOSM)—Scouting extends far beyond the Boy Scouts of America—has always put central focus on serving God, country, and community. As you might imagine, WOSM does not only serve those members of the Judeo-Christian faith. Indeed, with 31 million members, WOSM serves Scouts who identify as Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Roman Catholic, Jains, Orthodox Christians, Conservative Jews and everything in between.
In fact, the founder of the WOSM and inspiration to the BSA—Lord Robert Baden-Powell—specified that scouting was to exist independent of any single religion or faith and that a Scout’s duty was to no god or gods but his own.
When I was completing my Eagle Scout “Board of Review,” the final step before achieving Scouting’s highest rank, I was asked by one of my Troop’s leaders what it meant to me to “do my duty to God,” a promise I made every time I recited the Scout Oath. My answer was simple. We’re all God’s children—there’s no better way to respect God than to respect our fellow human beings by following the Scout Law: to be trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent.
I see no conflict, in any of these tenets, with homosexuality. Some on the far right have tried to say that homosexuality is not “morally straight,” seemingly unaware that the phrase “morally straight” predates today’s colloquialism for “heterosexual” by fifty years. Others point to the Bible, calling homosexuality “unclean,” but forgetting that people have said the same thing about such heinous acts as eating pork and shrimp, using clothing woven from multiple fibers or—God forbid—menstruating.
While I have no doubt that some truly believe these claims that does not mean that any one particular belief system should get to impose its view on others.
Tying the public definition of what is moral sexual behavior to any single set of religious beliefs is antithetical to everything for which Scouting stands. The Scout Law and Oath were deliberately written to be accessible to people of all faiths, denominations, creeds, colors, genders, sexual orientations, education levels, nationalities, socioeconomic strata and, frankly, written to be accessible whether or not you’re a person of faith.
As an aside, though the BSA was founded as a religious organization and remains active as such, dropping the theistic requirement—while maintaining the spiritual affiliation, similar to how the Girl Scouts have handled this predicament—would be the right thing to do. Scouting’s morals and principles are accessible and valuable to all, not just to those of us who believe.
And not only would it be the right decision for its own sake, it’s also a pragmatic move. The non-affiliated are the fastest growing religious “affiliation” in the country; we now live in a world that understands your moral worth is not necessarily anchored by religious belief. I know plenty of atheist Eagle Scouts who embody the highest virtues of our community.
The lasting disappointment here is in just how long it took the Boy Scouts to begin its reversal. And to be clear, there is still a long ways to go. Local charter organizations (i.e. sponsors, like churches, civic groups and schools) will be able to set membership policy, which is to say that they can decide whether or not to allow gay members and leaders. I expect an overwhelming majority of units to move in favor of inclusiveness.
More importantly, the Boy Scouts’ proposed change will spark conversations about the role of religion and sexual morality in churches, schools and public spaces. This dialogue, if we’re willing to truly listen instead of just waiting our turn to speak, will be good for all of us.
Punting the decision-making power on homosexuality from the national level down to the chartering is a move that will undeniably lead to less discrimination in the Boy Scouts. But until the national organization is willing to issue a blanket non-discrimination policy on the basis of sexual orientation, the work goes on. The cause of equality endures.
Zach Wahls is an Eagle Scout and the Executive Director of Scouts for Equality.