The Boy Scouts of America is currently reviewing its membership policy regarding sexual orientation. The proposal is to make policy decisions on membership and selection of leaders a matter for the local sponsoring organization, consistent with their priorities and guidelines.
Since its beginning more than a century ago, the BSA has partnered with local organizations such as churches, veterans groups and civic clubs to provide character development programs for youth. Today, nearly four million youth and adult volunteers participate in programs sponsored by groups such as the American Legion, Rotary Clubs, churches of all faiths, and dozens of other community and civic organizations.
Should this policy change be accepted, it would mean that the sponsoring organization, in concert with parents of children in scouting units would decide who best meets the needs of the youth in their local program. The Boy Scouts would still require compliance with its comprehensive youth protection guidelines such as background checks and on-going training for adult leaders. Inappropriate behavior by leaders would still be cause for expulsion. It is interesting to note that volunteers have been asked to leave the program for inappropriate heterosexual behavior as well as homosexual behavior at scout activities. Such rare behavior is intolerable and is dealt with immediately and appropriately whenever it occurs.
At scouting’s inception more than 100 years ago, homosexuality was often considered a crime. We now live in an age where it is no longer a barrier even to military service. Recently Marine Corps officers of the same sex have openly and legally married. Religious faiths have often disagreed on the subject, sometimes even within their own denomination. As a nation, we have vast regional differences in public attitude on the issue. San Francisco and Provo, Utah will probably never see eye-to-eye on the subject.
The Scout Oath and Law, recited by both youth and adult members of the Boy Scouts, have been the guiding principles of the movement from its very beginnings. The Scout Oath states: “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.” The Scout Law: “A Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent.” These two statements talk about obligations of good citizenship and attributes of character. The BSA has always left the definition and application of these terms to the personal convictions of the scout and his parents and scout leaders.
According to the proposed policy, a scout unit sponsored by a secular civic club in New Jersey may develop different criteria for recruiting adult leaders from those of a unit sponsored by a fundamentalist church in Kansas. Both, however, would still have to meet national BSA standards of youth protection training and appropriate behavior.
It is important that families have access to the character development benefits of scouting in keeping with their own values. Likewise, it is important for the Boy Scouts of America to reflect the values and character of our great nation. Just as some people do not agree with the current policies of BSA, some will not welcome any change, should the current proposal be adopted. I believe the enduring values of scouting expressed in the Scout Oath and Law are strong enough to accommodate a diverse opinion while building strong character in today’s young people and tomorrow’s adults.
John Keegan is the former Mayor of Peoria and currently serves as the volunteer Boy Scout area president for the Southwestern United States and Pacific basin. The views expressed are his own.