Since its inception, members of the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) have repeated the Scout Oath, which affirms: “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.” So being “morally straight” is a key character trait affirmed and inculcated by the Boy Scouts.
What does it mean to be “morally straight?” The Boy Scout Handbook explains: “To be a person of strong character, guide your life with honesty, purity, and justice. Respect and defend the rights of all people. Your relationship with othesr should be honest and open. Be clean in your speech and actions, and faithful in your religious beliefs. The values you follow as a Scout will help you become virtuous and self-reliant.” "The Boy Scout Handbook", page 551 (1990).
LGBT persons, like most other people, use the term “straight” to describe a lifestyle that is in contrast to the gay lifestyle. “Gay” behavior is excluded from the concept of being “morally straight.” Thus, homosexual behavior is inconsistent with the Scout oath.
The prohibition against known or avowed homosexuals becoming members of the Boy Scouts was intact until January 2014, when the BSA revoked that prohibition. Since then, boys who felt or professed sexual attraction to other boys could become and remain Boy Scouts.
There are two plausible justifications for the 2014 policy that are not inconsistent with the Boy Scouts standards, mission, and ideals. First, being “gay” is a very broad description and includes a political-social self-identification. A boy self-identifying as “gay” today is not unlike self-identifying as “Marxist” or “Communist” in the 1950s-1960s, when it was very popular for some young people to claim those political labels as means of expressing their support for the “revolutionary struggle” of “oppressed people.” Likewise, a boy’s “gay” self-identification today may be an expression of his sympathy and support for that group of traditionally marginalized individuals rather than a declaration of personal sexual behavior or of their morality.
The second possible justification is the act-belief distinction. Identifying or self-labeling as “gay” is not the same as sexually acting out as gay. While gay sexual behavior would clearly violate the Scout oath, merely acknowledging feelings of same-sex attraction would not. It is like the difference between thinking or saying “I wish he were dead” and killing someone. The former may not be noble, but it is not illegal; the latter is violent, lethal and criminal.
So allowing boys who self-identify as “gay” to participate in Scouting under careful adult-supervision of responsible adult Scouters would not seem to be inconsistent with the Scout Oath or Law. Moreover, Scouting provides an environment that may help boys who are struggling with gender confusion to development into responsible “morally straight” men. By associating with other male adolescents in an environment of outdoors activities, learning manly skills, under the direction and modeling of responsible adult males may help boys experiencing gender confusion to develop a strong, healthy male gender identity, to learn how to behave as responsible, manly adults, and to learn how to control conflicting sexual attractions.
The Scout Oath also affirms a boy’s commitment to the Scout Law which declares: “A Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thirsty, brave, clean, and reverent.” If a boy affirms that he will be obedient and clean, with respect to sexual behavior, despite any same-sex attractions he may feel, he should be fully welcome in Scouting.
Thus, allowing gay boys who are committed to living the Scout Oath and Law to become Boy Scouts seems not inconsistent with Scouting’s fundamental Oath and with the Law.
Gay men, that is men who are attracted to other males, also were traditionally excluded from being Scoutmasters by this “morally straight” Scout standard. There are more profound concerns about adult leaders who are or profess being gay than about boys. There are concerns that men who are sexually attracted to and aroused by young males might be at elevated risk of molesting and sexually abusing adolescent boys in their care. The risk, especially when a man in a position of trust and authority is alone with a boy – especially on camping trips far from families – must be taken seriously.
The reason for the adult Scouter policy was simple and simply obvious: If you care about protecting boys from potential sexual exploitation, you do not send them camping or out into the wilderness under the supervision of an adult who is sexually attracted to the vulnerable youths over whom he has authority.
Over the years, the Scouts have been sued by boys or parents of boys who were sexually molested by their scoutmasters. For example, one of the leading contemporary “choice of law” cases in many “Conflict of Laws” casebooks is Schultz v. Boy Scouts of America, 65 N.Y.2d 189, 480 N.E.2d 679 (1985), involving the sexual abuse of boys by a gay Scoutmaster (who also was a priest). In that case, two New Jersey boys who were brothers were sexually molested by their scoutmaster, mostly at a Scout camp in New York. After one of the boys committed suicide, his parents sued the BSA and several Catholic organizations that sponsored the Scout troop and that selected and supervised the scoutmaster-priest who abused the boys.
Thus, because of concerns about protecting the boys, protecting the BSA’s fiscal resources, and protecting the core standards of the Boy Scouts, the BSA historically has excluded gay adults from serving as adult Scout leaders.
Then, In May, 2015, BSA President Robert Gates told the national meeting of the BSA that he considered the policy of excluding openly gay adults to be "unsustainable" and should be changed as soon as possible if the organization is to survive and remain relevant. He said that if the BSA did not change its policy, that decision could also be forced on the Scouting organization by the courts, and it would be better "to seize control of our own future."
If carefully qualified by emphasizing other protective standards that would protect boys from potential exploitation and abuse Gates’ new proposed policy of allowing gay men to be Scout leaders might not be irresponsible. Perhaps there already are some protective qualifications and standards for allowing gay men to serve as Scout leaders. Sadly, however, Gates (or at least the media quoting Gates) did not mention, let alone emphasize, any such protective qualifications or criteria.
The apparent moral capitulation by the leader of the Boy Scouts is deeply disappointing. Ironically, by compromising the century-old standard of “morally straight” Gates has already voluntarily made the Boy Scouts become what he feared their opponents would force them to become – namely, morally compromised and irrelevant.
Gate’s proposed new BSA policy puts the lie to the claim of integrity in the Scouting organization and leadership. It destroys the myth that Scouts do not compromise their moral standards or the mission of Scouting.
Gates’ business and political instincts are to avoid conflicts and cut losses. He fears the loss of corporate sponsorship and funding of Scouting. In this case, he proposes that the Scouts avoid potential loss of support and funding by compromising its “morally straight” standard.
By so doing, Gates is taking a step that will help to destroy the Boy Scouts. Is not the action Gates proposes fundamentally inconsistent with the Scout Oath and Law? Is it courageous, or brave? Is it clean? Is it true to maintaining Scout values?
Gate’s justified his proposed new policy by stating that if the BSA did not change they would be forced (by courts and political pressures) to change. Inconsistently, however, he said that Scout units that did not want to allow gay adult leaders would not have to do so, because “[t]here would be a First Amendment protection for their right to do so.” Really? If individual scout troops, districts and councils would be protected by the First Amendment against being forced to have gay Scoutmasters, could not the national organization claim similar protection?
The Boy Scouts have successfully gone to Congress in the past to get special protections in order to maintain their values and to be faithful to the mission. Those efforts are difficult. Gates seems to be looking for an easier way out. But at what price?
Abandoning the standards of Scouting and compromising the values of Scouting may seem like an easier route and may provide short-term protections. But they come at the expense of the integrity of an organization that, if it has no integrity, has little to offer to boys or to their families or to the nation.
The BSA can salvage the matter by clearly articulating and adopting specific protective standards for all adult leaders, including gays, that would insure that boys are protected fully. The risk of potential exploitation and abuse from men with same-sex and pedophilia attractions must be directly addressed before Gates’ proposed new policy is adopted, and strong protective shields must be put in place before it is implemented.
Lynn D. Wardle is the Bruce C. Hafen Professor of Law at Brigham Young University. He is author or editor of numerous books and law review articles mostly about family, biomedical ethics and conflict of laws policy issues. His publications present only his personal (not institutional) views.