How one community struggles with the Boy Scouts' anti-gay policies.
Last fall, when he put on his scout uniform for the first time after the summer break, my 11-year-old son proudly announced, "I'm going all the way up. I'm going to be an Eagle Scout." Today his and his younger brother's scouting days are over. In January the Boy Scouts of America announced that it was shutting down our Cub Scout pack and six other BSA groups in Oak Park, Illinois because of our policies' "inconsistency . . . [with] the position of the Boy Scouts of America concerning avowed homosexuals as scout leaders."
It all started with last summer's Supreme Court decision upholding the BSA's right to exclude gays from membership and leadership positions. None of us were gay-rights crusaders and we have no openly gay scout leaders in our pack, but most of us felt that we owed it to our gay neighbors, family members, friends, and fellow parishioners to take a stand.
The generally unspoken rationale for the blatant discrimination the BSA has chosen to embrace is an unfounded but still widespread equation of homosexuality with pedophilia. Obviously, pedophilia is a serious crime, against which all organizations and institutions–including the church!–need to take all possible safeguards. But it is also true that far more cases of heterosexual molestation occur, and just as it would be unfair to ban all women from leading boys' groups, it is equally unfair to categorically ban all gays.
After months of conversations and meetings, the Oak Park Cub Scout packs and our chartered organizations–the public elementary schools' Parent Teacher Organizations–came up with a carefully crafted compromise. We wanted to make a clear statement against discrimination, while at the same time making it possible for the valued scouting programs to continue. Thus, as it became time to renew our annual charter application, we decided to attach to it copies of our village and school district's nondiscrimination policies–both of which include provisions barring discrimination based on sexual orientation.
In deciding to expel our seven Oak Park scout groups, the BSA further escalated its fight. It now not only discriminates against gays but also discriminates against any scouting group–like those in our community–that disagrees with the discrimination. The whole mess attracted major national media attention. At one point our family even had a crew from CBS' 60 Minutes crawling around our kitchen and filming our toasted cheese sandwich lunch.
Interestingly, the letter informing us of the BSA decision took cover behind "the national religious organizations with the three largest scout memberships: United Methodist, Latter Day Saints, and Roman Catholic." Until now, the strictly nonsectarian BSA had never defined the scout oath's "duty to God" pledge. But now, according to its letter, that duty is to be defined–and exclusively so–by the position taken by the three churches against all extramarital sexual relations.
Religious organizations filed Supreme Court briefs on opposing sides of this case. The U.S. Catholic Conference, unfortunately, filed one in support of the Boy Scouts, focusing on the right to self-governance. But even as it did so, its general counsel emphasized that "church teaching is clear that every individual is entitled to be treated as a unique person with God-given rights and responsibilities." In other words, yes, the scouts–and not the government–have the right to define their membership criteria, but that doesn't mean that defining them in a discriminatory way is the right and moral thing to do.
The last time I checked, the Catechism of the Catholic Church still included the instruction that homosexual persons "must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided." In the aftermath of the BSA's decision, one local Catholic pastor preached a stirring homily about inclusion and announced that his parish's scout leadership would begin a process of discernment on how to respond to the developments.
Needless to say, this whole episode has been a valuable teaching moment for our children. And as we have joined others in our community in exploring alternative programs for our boys, we're keeping in mind some valuable lessons from the Scout Law: "A scout seeks to understand others. He respects those with ideas and customs other than his own. . . . A scout has the courage to stand for what he thinks is right, even if others laugh at or threaten him."