The Boy Scouts, Gays and Parental Responsibility

According to NBC News, the Boy Scouts of America yesterday decreed that Ryan Andresen, who had recently completed the requirement to earn his Eagle Scout Award, "is no longer eligible for membership in Scouting" because he is gay. In the year 2012, this is nothing short of revolting.

The Boy Scout oath requires boy scouts "to help other people at all times," the Boy Scout law requires scouts to be "helpful, friendly, courteous, kind" and "brave," and the Boy Scout handbook requires scouts to "respect and defend the rights of all people." This is all admirable. But how in God's name can the Boy Scouts of America reconcile those purported values with its cruel and hateful discrimination against young boys merely because they happen to be gay? Whatever one might have thought about this issue fifty, twenty or even ten years ago, in 2012 in the United States it is simply immoral. Indeed, both President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney have condemned the Boy Scouts for their policy.

Do the Boy Scouts have a right to exclude gay scouts? In 2000 (the same year as Bush v. Gore), five very conservative justices of the Supreme Court (the same five who decided the 2000 election in favor of George W. Bush) held in Boy Scouts of America v. Dale that the Boy Scouts have a constitutional right to exclude gay scoutmasters. The Court's rationale was simple. The right to associate gives the Boy Scouts a right to choose their own members. Presumably, if some similar organization, say the KKK Scouts, wants to exclude African-Americans, or the WASP Scouts wants to exclude Catholics, they would also have a constitutional right to do.

Boy Scouts v. Dale was a completely unsupportable decision. As Justice John Paul Stevens observed in his powerful dissenting opinion, "we have routinely and easily rejected assertions of this right by . . . organizations with discriminatory membership policies, such as private schools, law firms, and labor organizations. In fact, until today, we have never once found a claimed right to associate in the selection of members to prevail in the face of a State's antidiscrimination law. To the contrary, we have squarely held that a State's antidiscrimination law does not violate a group's right to associate simply because the law conflicts with that group's exclusionary membership policy."

But my central concern here is not about the Constitution. That one has a constitutional right to do something does not mean one should do it. I have a constitutional right to espouse Nazism, but that doesn't mean it is moral or "helpful, friendly, courteous, kind" or "brave" for me to do so. Even if the Constitution protects my right to do something, others are perfectly free to treat it as hateful.

And that brings me to my real complaint. I know many parents who believe that discrimination against gays and lesbians is odious, but who nevertheless let their sons participate in the Boy Scouts. When I ask them about this, they typically look embarassed and say things like, "Well, his friends are all in the Boy Scouts" or "he really likes it."

Frankly, it's time for those people to knock it off. How would they feel about Southern Whites who sent their children in the 1950s to participate in organizations that excluded African-Americans? Would they say, "Well, their friends were in those organizations, so I guess it was fine for their parents to let them participate as well?" I rather doubt it. Indeed, I am quite confident that these otherwise very decent people would rightly condemn others who today allowed their children to participate in organizations that discriminated against African-Americans or Muslims or Catholics or Hispanics.

It is time for parents who condemn discrimination against gays and lesbians to teach their children something about what it means to be "brave" and "to respect and defend the rights of all people." If they permit their children to participate in the Boy Scouts, I can assure them that not too many years in the future their children will look back and say, "What the hell were you thinking?"