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Tue, 31 Jul 2007

Ending Discrimination in the Boy Scouts of America

"Once upon a time I was a Jewish kid growing up, alive and alone, in an all Gentile neighborhood. And mostly in school I experienced exclusion from many other kids my age who only knew what a Jew was from what their parents told them, what their friends said or popular negative stereotypes. ...So when I joined the Boy Scouts of America I felt that I had found a safe haven, away from all the teasing and all the taunting"

– Steven Spielberg, after resigning from the BSA National Board in protest against BSA's intolerance.

I have a love-hate relationship with the Boy Scouts of America. In one way I love what they do, which is to introduce kids to all sorts of cool stuff, useful stuff, important stuff they'd never get at school, like how to cook for themselves without Mom around. They learn how to stay warm, dry, and oriented in the woods, on rivers, on mountain peaks. How to build a fire; how to put one out. How to cut down a tree; how to plant one. How to organize a team; how to accomplish things as an individual. They learn how to lead; how to follow. They even learn how to tie a few knots.

In another way they are an insular community whose inner workings are a revolting morass of bigotry. Boy Scouts can be a clique that spends a good deal of its energy defining itself negatively by being intolerant and exclusionary – both its choice of association and its way of thinking.

In June of the year 2000, the US Supreme Court ruled that the Boy Scouts of America can bar homosexuals from being troop leaders. This ruling (a 5-4 vote) reversed the New Jersey Supreme Court that had ruled the dismissal of a gay Scout leader to be illegal under that state's anti discriminatory public accommodation laws.

The majority opinion, written by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, said that requiring BSA to admit gay leaders violated the group's constitutional right of free association. The question of whether a policy of barring gays by BSA was "right" or "wrong" in a moral sense, had no bearing on the issue.

As it seems to be playing out, BSA achieved only a Pyrrhic victory.

Since BSA's constitutional right to be insular was preserved by the Supreme Court, the ugly scar on scouting remains. Nor has the ruling eliminated attacks on scouting. Instead, the main consequence of the US Supreme Court decision has been a strategic shift in their direction. Now that BSA has successfully defined itself as a closed, private organization exempt from public accommodation laws, it is being actively cut off from public funding and support.

This consequence is widespread across the USA. It's not hard to find examples. The city of San Diego was forced to request the removal of a scout camp located in the city's beautiful Balboa Park because it gave gave preferred access to the boy scouts, a group with discrimination policies not allowed under the city's public accommodation statutes. In a similar case, the city of Port Townsend, WA withdrew public support for the purchase of a Boy Scout house.

Even the don't-ask-don't-tell folks at the Pentagon have issued policy statements that the US military cannot directly sponsor any BSA activity because of BSA's religious discrimination (discrimination against homosexuals is apparently not a point of contention for them).

BSA has challenged the de-accommodating backlash in court, but it seems they can't have things both ways. A BSA complaint about being cut off by the city of Berkley was dismissed (unanimously) by the California Supreme Court. The US Supreme Count refused to hear the case.

Be careful what you wish for, Boy Scouts, it seems your wish will be granted. As things stand now, there is no doubt BSA will continue to be evicted from all public land till they change their policy.

It's not just eviction and lack of public accommodation, it's money, too. United Way has cut off funding of various BSA councils. In Philadelphia, for example, The United Way of Southeastern Pennsylvania withheld funding for the Cradle of Liberty Council of the BSA. They decided to give the money to two other youth groups in the greater Philadelphia area. In addition, the City of Philadelphia asked Cradle of Liberty to leave the city-owned half acre on the grounds of the Art Museum, and exit a scout building they had free use of since 1928.

Diminishing the resources of effective youth groups makes nobody happy. Everybody knows that the BSA is a proven organization with deep and wide experience in providing a quality programs for youth. The Boy Scouts are good guys – they're boy scouts for Christ's sake. No. Nobody wins from this sort of outcome, least of all the people being discriminated against, and their supporters, who are now demonized.

The knee-jerk response to this de-accommodation and de-funding from conservatives is to claim hypocrisy. ACLU lawsuits against the BSA are, in fact, immoral attacks against the good values that BSA represents. It is the liberals that are actually doing the discriminating, as they attempt to destroy good organizations like BSA in a self aggrandizing quest to tell everyone else how to live.

There's certainly some truth to this. I don't doubt that some of the evictions of Boy Scout troops from public facilities are based on spite, at least partially. But we could also see the year 2000 Supreme Court appeal by BSA as a different sort of spite. An "I'll just take my toys and go play by myself" spite.

Each side blames the other for starting the feud. Like in most partisan bickering, nobody wins in these battles. It shouldn't be about spite. The anti-discrimination laws that we passed democratically in the USA are real laws. Equal protection is part of our tradition. And BSA knows this. It's even part of Scout Law to uphold that tradition.

Somebody needs to compromise, but not all parties can compromise. The Supreme Court has spoken. Cities, military bases, and other organizations supported by public money have their hands tied.

In this dispute, it's clear: I believe the only party that can effectively compromise is US national BSA council. The fact that they have not yet done this yet is testimony to their short sightedness and lack of imagination. In my opinion, they must compromise if they want to do the best for their program in the long run. Sticking to a backward policy with no creative attempt to move forward hurts everyone.

Yes, backward. This is 2007 not 1955. Whether you believe homosexuality and atheism are ultimate evils on par with the proliferation of communism, terrorism, drugs, and incendiary acts against flags, or you think all these things are all just peachy, when you are given the great responsibility to write policy for a prominent national organization like the BSA, you need to have a clue. Stonewalling on this issue with exclusionary, mean spirited rhetoric is not cluefull behavior. People without a clue at this level should be sacked.

Philly's Cradle of Liberty council (the third largest Boy Scout council in the USA) actually made an attempt to break from national council and adopt its own broader, non discriminatory policy. A compromise was almost reached with the city, when national council stepped in, preventing Cradle of Liberty from breaking ranks. What are these people at national council thinking? It seems they are thinking that it would be best for BSA to be marginalized into some sort of flat earth society in denial about the curvature of the earth. What they should be thinking, in my view, is how to best "prepare young people to make ethical and moral choices over their lifetimes by instilling in them the values of the Scout Oath and Law," the avowed mission of BSA.

Does their ostrich-like policy stance of today "prepare young people to make ethical and moral choices"? Of course it doesn't. It does just the opposite. It demonstrates that running away is easier than fighting for what really matters.

Some may say the people who control BSA policy feel homosexuality is abhorrent, have zero tolerance for it, and consequently seek to run from it in a way that can't be completely rational. This leads them to set policy in an extreme way that they believe is backed up by a mandate deriving from the general gay-abhorring feelings of the majority of BSA members.

Of course, this view of the BSA policy makers is likely a straw man caricature. At least I hope it is. I'd rather like to think the people setting policy at national BSA council are thoughtful adults. While they do have deep seated beliefs, they also have pragmatic goals.

It's impossible to expect compromise on beliefs that are deeply held. Maybe some progress can be made on the "pragmatic" front. No matter how deeply visceral a conviction may be, a reasonable adult is usually amenable to some pragmatic compromise, especially if it gets her everything she really wants.

To the end of slicing through the Gordian knot of insularity that has thus far baffled these reputedly expert knot tyers, consider the most visible rational justification for BSA's current extreme policy against gays. This justification is far more pragmatic and "up to date" than the good 'ol boy, homophobic stuff. I'm talking about the relatively new Youth Protection guidelines developed by BSA over the last few years.

"The Boy Scouts of America places the greatest importance on creating the most secure environment possible for our youth members."

Who can argue with that? When we send our kids off to Boy Scout meetings, we want to know that they will be protected from harm. If they rock climb, they should have belay ropes. If they ride bikes, they should have helmets. They should not be allowed in deep water till they can swim. And so on.

But, despite the fact that the words "Youth Protection" seem to imply a concern for protecting youth from danger in general, the BSA Youth Protection policies aren't general at all. In fact, they focus on only one very specific "danger": homosexual, pedophilic sexual abuse. BSA has other programs to protect youth from other dangers (Safe Swim to protect them from drowning hazards, for example).

So far as it goes, I think the Youth Protection Policy is very well done. With an analytical method that would be praised by the security pundit Bruce Schneier. BSA's Youth Protection Policy proceeds methodically to identify the specific activities it wants to prevent, then it establishes logical policies that prevent these specific things, at the same time it seeks to minimize the negative impact of these prophylactic policies on other areas.

Case in point here, the activity BSA chose to prevent is sexual abuse, specifically homosexual pedophilia. Thus, they perform background checks to exclude known criminal abusers. They also altered the program such that scouts and responsible leaders can better recognize, resist, and report abuse. Other policies work toward reducing the opportunity for abuse, and the motivation of potential abusers to commit such crimes. All good. And my direct experience with the policy is that overall it makes scouting better – there's no net loss, but in fact a gain.

Take "two deep" leadership, a new requirement mandated by the Youth Protection Policy. On the negative side of the balance sheet, given the perennial shortage of adult leaders, requiring that a minimum of two adults attend every activity will inevitably decrease the quantity of activities that can be offered. On the other hand, isn't it better to have fewer activities that are adequately supervised than to allow marginal supervision just to "stretch" the program? The participation of two adult leaders, rather than one, is a good idea for far more reasons than just preventing pedophilic sexual abuse.

In a backpacking trip, for example, should an accident in the backcountry require the group to be split, the presence of the second adult is a priceless advantage. One adult can stay with the injured party; the other adult can go for help; neither group of youth is left without adult supervision. Even better would be four adults, allowing the group to be split and still maintain two deep leaders in the pair.

I say that I like the Youth Protection Policy, but that does not alter the fact that it is based entirely on the assumption that the only activity we are trying to prevent is homosexual pedophilia. Straight or gay sexual activity between youth, or between adults, or use of pornography, or marital infidelity, or even sex between married partners during scout activities is not considered.

One view is that these other forms of sexual activity don't need to be considered because they are non-existent, or they don't hurt the kids. Assuming homosexuals are effectively banned from scouting and assuming all scouts and leaders are good honest god fearing men, then there is no reason to consider protecting youth from other kinds of sex acts, right? Then again, we do still need youth protection against homosexual pedophilia which somehow assumed to still "slip in" even though we assume peer-to-peer homosexuality does not.

These assumptions are absurdly inconsistent to the point of undermining the Youth Protection Policy for the intended purpose. Although national BSA council did a great job on the Youth Protection Policy so far as it goes, that same policy clashes badly with reality and their larger goals.

Consider the 'separate showers' rule. Because of the Youth Protection Policy, adult leaders cannot supervise activity in youth showers. Perhaps this prevents some trouble with pedophilia, but how much trouble with peer-to-peer abuse does it consequently allow because the youth shower is now unsupervised? I suspect the trade-off is a bad one.

There may be a link between homosexuality and pedophilia. This is another possible justification for banning gays on the basis of Youth protection. In some people's minds, simply being unmarried and without children also casts doubt on someone's qualifications to be a scout leader, independent of sexual orientation. After all, can an individual who has never been a parent really be expected to be effective in the parent-like role of scout leader?

Of course an unmarried male without his own kids can be a leader. A central goal of scouting is to develop leaders from within the ranks of the boys themselves. When an Eagle scout who has had an exemplary scout career wants to become a leader after he turns 18, although he's still unmarried and without kids, he is usually welcomed in his new role, so long as he's not suspected to be gay, of course.

It should be said, also, that in much of the USA, gays are not legally allowed to marry or adopt kids. So the fact that gays tend to be unmarried and without experience parenting children, and thus arguably (in some minds) unsuitable for scout leadership is a tautological discriminatory effect enforced by our myopic laws and culture, not necessarily by any tendency on the part of gays. If gays could marry and adopt kids, I would wager that those who chose to do so would likely have exactly the responsibility and paternal leadership skills that would make them excellent scout leaders.

Also, and more importantly, even if there actually is some statistical correlation between homosexuality and child abuse, unless that correlation is unity (which it surely isn't), not all homosexuals are pedophiles. Similarly, not all blacks are thieves; not all Jews are stingy; not all Muslims are terrorists; not all white men can't jump. Any time you judge an individual based on what you believe is an uncertain yet likely characteristic of some a priori logical group you place him in, and you use that judgment as reason to deny him the chance to prove otherwise, you are discriminating against him in the worst sense.

When the Declaration of Independence said all men are created equal, it wasn't because the founding fathers were so naive as to believe that all men actually were the same in any attribute other than being men (or at least people). Rather, they were proposing a certain kind of political, a priori blindness that was essential if the freedom they were seeking was to flourish.

It's a pity that the BSA doesn't look at things this way.

Some say discrimination of this exclusionary sort evolved into us as a valuable survival instinct. If it looks like a tiger, it probably wants to eat me and I should stay away from it. Moreover, I should keep my kids away from it too. There's too much risk in offering the tiger a chance to prove it isn't a killer.

But people are sentient beings that have free will. When you shun someone using animal reasoning based on weak, uncertain, a priori criteria, you are most assuredly breaking the Golden Rule. We should not judge others as we do animals – as we wouldn't want to be judged so superficially ourselves.

Taking account of the observed aspects of particular individuals and using those aspects as evidence for or against them is an entirely different matter. Thus, we could view it highly desirable that scout leaders are be involved in a stable, monogamous partner relationship have some proven experience with raising children. Such requirements would admit some gays, especially where gay marriage and adoption is legal, but do you think they would likely be these abhorrent, promiscuous, pedophiles that we worry may be so problematic?

I know for a fact that there are gay scouts and leaders – people that I personally judge to be Trustworthy, Loyal, Helpful, Friendly, Courteous, Kind, Obedient, Cheerful, Thrifty, Brave, Clean, and Reverent. But they must keep their orientation secret or be expelled. Thus, they are presented with a dilemma. On one hand being excluded by BSA and thus implicitly labeled as morally inferior as a result of telling the truth about their orientation, or, on the other hand committing a sin by lying.

A scout is Clean. Today's BSA seems to feel that homosexuals are "unclean" intrinsically as people. My advice is that BSA should get on the clue bus and shift their focus from the individual to the act. Clean is as clean does. In my opinion, BSA should take this "A scout is Clean" law to be a ban on all sexual activity: straight, gay, peer-to-peer, or pedophilic. No sexual activity at all should be tolerated during scout activities. Is there anyone that would really disagree with this?

Given we can reach an agreement to ban all sex from the scout program, the same reasoned, analytical approach applied to the current Youth Protection Policy, we find it now should be extended to cover the full gamut of possibility. Basically, we stop making the assumptions that aren't defensible. We extend the policy so that it matches the full reality.

Since a scout is clean, there shouldn't be sexual joking, fraternizing, hazing, pornography, extramarital affairs, or any else that leads down the slippery slope to unwanted "unclean" activity.

The way things are now, lots of "guy talk" is permitted in all boy crews that would be offensive to a wider audience. I know there are some adults that implicitly approve of this sort of trash. Guys will be guys. Those that approve of it would resist being asked to clean up their act. I'm not just talking about things that are offensive to gays. I've been at committee meetings where Mom's were, at best, marginalized, at worst, driven away, because of the wink-wink, know-what-I-mean guy talk. Do we really want to drive away responsible adult participants so that we can preserve this sort of male chauvinist crap?

I do understand that teen youth, both boys and girls, like to explore boundaries. More often than not, the exploration is innocent and harmless. Effective adult leaders must be cautious to not over react to these sorts of explorations, for fear of losing the respect of youth, and, more importantly, diminishing their own effectiveness as adults when it counts. But that's not to say policies that prohibit unwanted behavior can't be strictly enforced. Policies simply need to be enforced with adult wisdom and judgment.

For example, it's been my experience that the two-deep leadership policy is both respected and enforced strictly in my troop, even thought there may be moments, especially on trips, when it isn't strictly true that two adults are in the exactly required proximity for every split second. Wisdom and judgment allows us to comply with the spirit of the rule all the time, and comply with the letter of the rule to the maximum extent reasonable.

Assuming wisdom and judgment is available (aye, there's the rub), I think that the exact same BSA policy can apply both to all male crews and to co-ed venturing crews. After all, even if a crew is all male it may be technically "co-ed" in a sexual orientation sense.

Speaking of "co-ed", a good model of what's needed in the way of additional youth protection for all boy crews indeed can be gleaned from the youth protection currently in place for co-ed venturing crews. Some how BSA is able to write effective policy to suppress heterosexual activity in Venturing, why can't the same approach be taken throughout scouts to suppress all kinds of sexual activity?

With this expansion of the Youth Protection I have suggested, augmented possibly by other expansions that I haven't thought of, I think the BSA can remove their discriminatory policy against gays, while, at the same time, achieve the important youth protection goals they must achieve as responsible guardians of our children. BSA wins two ways. They can restore some of the public accommodation and public funding they have lost, and they actually end up protecting youth better than they do now.

Of course, if the protection of children, demonstrating tolerance, equal protection, and setting an example of rational, pragmatic, adult conflict resolution is not the US national council's goal, but rather to stick with their constitutionally protected intolerance as they remain insular and exclusionary, then my plan will not work.

"The Boy Scouts of America maintain that no member can grow into the best kind of citizen without recognizing his obligation to God."
– Boy Scouts of America, Bylaws.
"activities of the members of the Boy Scouts of America shall be carried on under conditions which show respect to the convictions of others in matters of custom and religion..."
– Boy Scouts of America, Bylaws.

BSA pays lip service to religious tolerance, yet has excluded and expelled members for no other reason than they have religious beliefs that do not acknowledge a personal God. This includes Agnostics, Atheists, Buddhists, Universalists, and others. Can there be a way for BSA to stop this exclusionary practice and become truly 'reverent' toward the diverse ways that people approach religious practice, including those of us that lead completely secular lives?

Although I think BSA's discrimination against homosexuals can be fixed by expanding the youth protection policy in the way I have described above, fixing the BSA policy that discriminates against certain kinds of religious belief is quite a different matter. It's a much tougher problem. While sexuality is no part of the BSA program, prayer and other religious practice is found throughout. The law "A scout is Reverent" is woven into many activities, oaths, and ByLaws.

When discussing discrimination against gays, I noted that gays are forced to lie about their orientation if they want to stay in scouting. The same is true of atheists. Of some significance here is the fact that "Truthful" isn't on the list of twelve points in the Scout Law. Some would say that Truthful is covered under Trustworthy and Reverent. The analogy of a compass is used. The scout's Moral Compass neatly divides the twelve points of Scout Law into four cardinal quadrants: Duty to God, Duty to Country, Duty to Others, and Duty to Self. The two points nearest to Duty to God are "Reverent" and "Trustworthy". Implicit in this is the assumption that moral law derives from God, morality cannot exist without God, and godless people can't possibly be moral.

Once again we see a false, antiquated assumption driving an intolerant discriminatory policy. Godliness is not a necessary and sufficient condition for morality. There are plenty of corrupt churchgoers, and plenty of admirable atheists. I repeat: any time you judge an individual based on what you believe is an uncertain yet likely characteristic of some a priori logical group you place him in, and you use that judgment as reason to deny him the chance to prove otherwise, you are discriminating against him in the worst sense. And here the discrimination is even "more worst" because the immoral characteristics being assumed to correlate with non-deism are simply not correlated. The arbitrary arithmetical fact that 4 divides twelve evenly in the scout's Moral Compass is not a basis for excluding Unitarians and Agnostics from scouting. Don't use a compass – use a Moral Trident, or a Moral Tripod. Three also divides twelve.

A possible approach to introducing tolerance for all paths toward reverence is illustrated by BSA's approach to swimming. Almost every boy scout can swim. Swimming is part of every summer camp program. Swimming and lifesaving are in the list of Eagle required merit badges. No one will deny that scouting places a big emphasis on teaching about swimming and has numerous programs that help youth to develop their swimming ability.

Yet careful study of the rules shows that there is a loophole that allows non-swimmers to advance to Eagle. There is an Eagle requirement for Emergency Preparedness or Lifesaving. There is another Eagle requirement for Swimming or Hiking or Cycling. It is therefore possible to achieve the highest rank in scouting without ever swimming.

Why can't religious practice be handled this same way? Scouting can keep their religious programs, they just need to be arranged in such a way that scouts can benefit from all the other programs and rise to Eagle without ever being forced to participate in a BSA religious program. This is exactly the same way that scouts can rise to Eagle without ever swimming.

Care is needed here so that we don't go to far. We don't want to mandate (or even encourage) atheism by abandoning or diminishing the fine religious programs offered by scouting. That would be a terrible loss. But I suspect it's not impossible to preserve the baby while draining this intolerant bathwater. Fundamentally, what I believe BSA needs to do is show some respect and, indeed, reverence to the intensely personal and myriad ways people approach religion – including living a fully secular life. Allowing scouts some options for satisfying their Reverence requirement is probably all they need to do.

Combine those simple changes to the Reverence policy with an expanded Youth Protection Policy, and the problem is fixed. BSA can return to being the ultimate shining example of what an outstanding youth organization should be.

Posted Jul 31, 2007 at 02:27 UTC, 4551 words,  [/danPermalink

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