Beliefs Mark Silk: Spiritual Politics Opinion

The Boy Scouts had to salute gay equality

The Duty to God Award presented to LDS Boy Scouts prior to 2002.
The Duty to God Award presented to LDS Boy Scouts prior to 2002.

The Duty to God Award presented to LDS Boy Scouts prior to 2002.

My mother, may she rest in peace, refused to let me and my brothers join the Boy Scouts because boys in uniform conjured up for her images of the Hitler Youth. That view was understandable in a Jewish woman who grew up in the 1930s but, luckily for the Scouts, was not widely shared by other American mothers after World War II.

The point is that organizations like the Boy Scouts of America, which seek membership throughout society, have to be sensitive to public opinion — which means they must carefully adapt to changing social norms. Thus, in the early 1980s, the BSA first won a legal case challenging its right to have only male Scout leaders, then voluntarily changed its policy to permit leaders to be women.

As once with women, so today with gays: first a BSA legal victory to maintain its anti-homosexual policy (Boy Scouts of America v. Dale), then opening membership to boys regardless of sexual orientation, and now permitting gay leaders. The legal memo accompanying BSA’s announcement of its decision makes clear that the most serious pressure is internal:

[I]t has become more challenging for the BSA to declare that homosexual conduct is not morally straight and not clean. There is increased opposition to that position within Scouting, including local councils openly opposing the policy. There is increased opposition to that position within Scouting, including local councils openly opposing the policy. If Dale were litigated today, some BSA chartered organizations and local councils would file amicus curiae briefs stating that the exclusion of homosexuals from leadership is not part of the BSA’s expression.

But the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision last month doubtless played its part. With  the United States recognizing same-sex marriage as a constitutional right, the BSA could no longer afford to treat homosexuality as less than “morally straight” and “clean” — and yet, many of its members and chartered organizations belong to religious bodies that do. How to proceed?

Godliness combined with religious Inclusivity has been a BSA principle from the beginning. In its original 1911 Handbook, published at a time when the YMCA was all about promoting evangelical Christianity, the BSA emphasized that the Scout oath (“I promise on my honor to do my best to honor my God and my country”) applied to those of all faiths:

The recognition of God as the ruling and leading power in the universe, and the grateful acknowledgement of His favors and blessings is necessary to the best type of citizenship and is a wholesome thing in the education of the growing boy. No matter what the boy may be — Catholic, or Protestant, or Jew — this fundamental need of good citizenship should be kept before him. The Boy Scouts of America therefore recognize the religious element in the training of a boy, but it is absolutely non-sectarian in its attitude toward that religious training.

I suspect that it was this principled religious inclusivity that led an LDS Church mindful of persecution and prejudice to embrace BSA from the outset, and make Scouting its only youth program for boys.

But just as the country has struggled to balance the First Amendment’s free exercise and establishment clauses, so BSA’s religious stance has required a balancing act, and not only with respect to avowed atheists. When women were permitted as Scout leaders, religious chartered organizations were allowed to maintain a males-only policy. At the same time, current BSA regulations include this prohibition: “In no case where a unit is connected with a church or other distinctively religious organization shall members of other denominations or faith be required, because of their membership in the unit, to take part in or observe a religious ceremony distinctly unique to that organization or church.”

As far as homosexuality goes, the BSA on the one hand requires organizations to admit gay scouts, but under its new rule will “not require any religious chartered organization to accept an adult leader whose espoused personal beliefs are in conflict with the chartered organization’s religious principles.” The exemption is unavailable to units not connected to religious organizations.

How well this balancing act will stand up remains to be seen, not only in court but also among those religious bodies that consider homosexuality morally crooked and unclean. Foremost among the latter is the LDS Church, which sponsors 17 percent of all Boy Scout troops. In a statement, the church said it was “deeply troubled” by the change in policy and would reexamine its century-long association with BSA.

What exactly troubles church authorities is not entirely clear. The statement criticized the BSA Executive Board for ignoring a request to delay its vote until LDS governing authorities were back at their desks, but so what?

In contrast to the position of Trail Life USA, a Christian organization formed in opposition to BSA’s removal of its ban on gay members, the LDS statement said that the “Church has always welcomed all boys to its Scouting units regardless of sexual orientation.” Granted, “the admission of openly gay leaders is inconsistent with the doctrines of the Church,” but under the BSA policy LDS Boy Scout organizations needn’t permit gay leaders. In fact, the LDS Church does not permit women to be Scout leaders of boys “of Aaronic Priesthood age,” that is ages 12-17, presumably because that would also be inconsistent with LDS doctrines.

Given that the Church has recently found a way to support legislation protecting the LGBT community in Utah from discrimination in housing and employment without undermining its doctrines, you’d think it could find a way to square itself with the new BSA policy. In the 1930s, the Nazis took over the Mormons’ Boy Scout organizations in Germany and turned them into Hitler Youth. My mother notwithstanding, I’d hate to see the Mormons voluntarily turn their Scouting organizations into something else today.


About the author

Mark Silk

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. He is a Contributing Editor of the Religion News Service