Killing Itself for the Right to Discriminate

The Boy Scouts' wrong-headed and relentless fight to keep gays out of scouting has devastated the once-inspiring organization, writes Henry Fernandez.

The city of Philadelphia is evicting the local Boy Scouts Council from this building, that the Council built on city land, turned over to the city, and occupied virtually rent-free for 80 years. The Council filed suit in federal court to stop the eviction. (AP/Matt Rourke)
The city of Philadelphia is evicting the local Boy Scouts Council from this building, that the Council built on city land, turned over to the city, and occupied virtually rent-free for 80 years. The Council filed suit in federal court to stop the eviction. (AP/Matt Rourke)

A few weeks ago, my three-year-old son fell and cut his head open, spewing blood like only a head laceration can. I applied direct pressure, calmed him down, checked for symptoms of shock, and secured the wound while maintaining the pressure by wrapping his head. Then we rushed him to the hospital where a couple of stitches and tears later, he was just fine.

I learned how to handle that situation three decades ago from the Boy Scouts.

I was a Boy Scout, and scouting made a big difference in my life. Back in the 1970s, Troop 3 in Poughkeepsie, New York was an odd hodgepodge of kids. It was what we might now call diverse. Some of the kids were the children of rich fathers who had grown up in scouting, some were kids without fathers at home who had already had some brushes with the law, and most fell somewhere in between.

At scouting jamborees—big events that draw scouts from across the state or region—we won any competition involving athletics and lost everything involving civics or knot tying.

But the scouting that welcomed all who needed it—the scouting that helped make me who I am—is disappearing. Over the past two decades, the Boy Scouts of America’s leadership has chosen to fight a wrong-headed moral crusade. Based on a reading of the Boy Scout Oath tenet “morally straight,” the Boy Scouts of America have battled to deny gays the ability to participate in scouting.

Let me say that in my years of scouting, the concept of morally straight was never mentioned in the context of sexuality. Maybe this was because back then no one in scouting’s leadership ever thought about scouts or scout leaders potentially being gay. But as I recall, we were taught that morally straight had something to do with being a person of strong character, not drinking or using drugs and respecting your elders. Paradoxically, being morally straight also requires that a scout “respect and defend the rights of all people.

Scouting now has a legal arm, which primarily serves to fight to keep scouting “gay free,” though it also opposes atheists and agnostics in scouting. In 2000, the Boy Scouts of America won a case at the United States Supreme Court (Boy Scouts of America et al. v. Dale) that allowed it to maintain its discriminatory practices because it is a private organization.

The Boy Scouts of America’s problem is that scouting has never been a truly private association. Scouting relies on the good will of millions of men who benefited from scouting in their youth to keep it going. It needs these men to sign their boys up, volunteer, donate, and if they are elected officials, give away free use of public space or other resources. And of course, much of scouting, especially the younger Cub Scouts, has always been run by mothers of boys. These mothers are now increasingly likely to hold positions of authority and power in the companies and local governments that scouting relies on.

More and more, parents are becoming simply uninterested in having their children participate in an organization that spends so much time focused on defending an indefensible policy, no matter how many good lessons go untaught. These parents, and I include my wife and myself, feel that the more important lesson of not hating someone based on personal characteristics trumps the self-reliance we can teach elsewhere.

Municipal governments are also increasingly unwilling to tacitly participate in the Boy Scouts’ lonely crusade. State and local laws disallow discrimination based on sexual orientation, and local elected officials have therefore begun to take back the use of free space for meetings and stopped assisting the scouts in recruiting children and families.

Scouting has fought back, launching lawsuits to try to retain its privileged status. In Philadelphia, the city is evicting the local Boy Scouts Council from a building that the Council built on city land, turned over to the city, and occupied virtually rent-free for 80 years. The Council, faced with a deadline to depart by May 31st, filed suit in federal court to stop the eviction. The Philadelphia Scouts argue that there is a unique history to the building, that the city does not enforce its ordinances against religious organizations on other city-owned property, and that the Scouts have a First Amendment right to associate as they see fit.

Recent court decisions do not bode well for the Philadelphia Scouts. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear a similar case filed against Berkeley, California when that city evicted the Sea Scouts from rent-free docking rights at the city pier, and the state Supreme Court agreed with the municipality that its anti-discrimination ordinance allowed the end of the rent-free agreement. In another case, the federal Second Circuit Court of Appeals denied the Boy Scouts’ plea to make the State of Connecticut return the Scouts to the state employee fundraising campaign after the State Comptroller, acting under the state’s anti-discrimination statute, dropped the Scout Council from the list of charities to which state employees could donate.

While other municipalities will watch the Philadelphia case to see how the courts further respond to enforcement of local non-discrimination laws, scouting has already lost. According to Boy Scouts of America’s own annual reports, the total number of scouts has plunged from 4.6 million in 1997 to 2.8 million in 2007. There are many reasons for this, including a greater parental awareness of the potential for sexual abuse in all youth programs, which cannot be attributed solely to scouting.

On the other hand, the Boy Scouts have increasingly come to be seen as a politically conservative organization at the national level. Its senior executives are some of the highest compensated non-profit leaders in the country, despite overseeing dramatic drops in number of children served. And the Boy Scouts also receive low scores from charity watchdogs for financial management, while the Girl Scouts receive consistently high marks. Even the greatly decreased numbers of child participants that the Boy Scouts reports may be inflated, given recent controversies over fraudulent numbers produced by state and local Boy Scout Councils in order to erroneously increase contributions, senior staff pay, and numbers of children of color.

Aside from being morally straight, there are other important tenets of scouting, including being trustworthy, helpful, friendly, courteous, and kind. By slowly destroying the opportunity for large numbers of boys to have all the benefits of scouting, the organization’s leadership has chosen an odd path, one that defies the lessons I learned and puts an increasing number of cities and families in the tough position of having to look elsewhere to positively engage boys.

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Henry Fernandez

Senior Fellow