The Boy Scouts Dilemma: when the troop is good, but the organization is very bad

Ryan Anderson’s troop leader in Moraga, CA, kicked him out right before he was to become an Eagle Scout. Why? Ryan is gay. Click the photo to sign the petition on

My son is at the age when several of his friends are joining the Cub Scouts. The local scout leader is a friend of ours, a terrific person, and a great dad. Many of the skills the Scouts teach–using a compass, building fires, camping–are good, old-fashioned skills. But when you join the Cub Scouts, you are joining Boy Scouts of America, and supporting BSA with your dues. And therein lies the problem.

(Update, October 6: Moraga, CA, Scout leader denies 12-year Boy Scout Eagle rank because he is gay).

 Unless you were hiding underground for the past couple of years, you know that BSA is vocally anti-gay. Not only has the organization ousted beloved lesbian and gay Scout leaders, despite letters of support for the leaders from thousands of parents and kids. (Scroll down to read about religious discrimination in the Boy Scouts.) The BSA has even gone so far as to say it will not allow gay kids to be members. This is a stance that goes far beyond being out of touch; it is openly cruel.

In recent years, there has been a bold effort on behalf of individuals and organizations all over the country to put an end to bullying against a very vulnerable group: gay teens. The “It’ Gets Better” campaign assures gay kids that it will, one day, get better.

But if you happen to be a Boy Scout or an Eagle Scout, it won’t get better until you get older, or choose to quit the Scouts. Because the Boy Scouts and the Eagle Scouts won’t have you. This is organizational bullying on a massive scale–the powers-that-be of a longstanding institution telling gay kids, “We don’t like you, we won’t have you, there is something fundamentally wrong with you.” The message it sends to gay kids is that they are immoral, and that they are deserving of all of the bullying they may receive. It tells them that when they grow up, they can look forward to more of the same; they won’t be allowed to be Scout leaders, simply because they’re gay.

Eagle Scouts return medals to protest Boy Scouts anti gay policies (photo Maggie Koerth-Baker)

The BSA’s public declaration of disdain for gays is all the more offensive in light of the fact that the organization has a record of protecting paedophiles. As yesterday’s LA Times article reports

A Los Angeles Times review of 1,600 confidential files dating from 1970 to 1991 has found that Scouting officials frequently urged admitted offenders to quietly resign — and helped many cover their tracks.

Through silence, the organization for decades allowed paedophiles to continue hurting children. In 2005, Douglas Sovereign Smith, the national program director for BSA and chairman of the Scouts’ Youth Protection League, was convicted of receiving and distributing explicit child pornography. Meanwhile, the BSA deems gay parents to be a bad influence on children. It’s a twisted logic that allows persons who are known sex offenders to have close contact with children while waging a public campaign against individuals who have done nothing but serve their Scout troops honorobly.

In July, the BSA made a point of reaffirming its ban on gay leaders and members. The USA Today editorial, Boy Scouts’ Anti-Gay Policy Teaches Wrong Lesson, makes a salient point:

…as the U.S. military figured out, an organization dedicated to integrity, teamwork and leadership benefits by being inclusive. Instead, the Boy Scouts of America has thrown its lot with a dwindling band of groups that place a higher premium on discrimination.

We all know how important it is to teach our children to be kind, to respect people who are different from them, people who are of a different religion or race, or of a different opinion. Most of us, in this day and age, would not dream of belonging to a country club–or any other club–that does not allow members of a certain race or religion. But the Boy Scouts, which is so ingrained in our schools and communities as a trusted social and cultural institution, gets away with practicing the same tactics that most of us would find utterly offensive elsewhere.

For people who are already involved in the scouts, changing it from the inside by summarily rejecting scoutmasters who practice bigotry, and by fighting hard to change the bylaws and to oust the higher-ups who impose this rule–may be a good tactic and is certainly a very worthy goal. But joining just for the purpose of changing it from the inside would be like joining the baptist church to get the powers-that-be to stop preaching hatred against gays and liberals. There are many ways for boys to learn good citizenship–being a boy scout certainly isn’t necessary to achieve this end.

A few months ago, my son asked me what “gay” meant, when he heard the word on the radio, and, in the interests of simplicity, I told him it means “when a girl like-likes a girl as a girlfriend, or a boy like-likes a boy, as a boyfriend.” Because, being 7, he may not know anything about sex, but he does know the difference between “like” and “like-like.” He said, “What’s wrong with that?”

“Nothing,” I said.

“But why are they talking about it?” he asked. In his innocence, in his natural childish tendency to be accepting, he couldn’t fathom why anyone would be bothered by someone else “like-liking” whomever they chose.

Fortunately, my son hasn’t expressed any desire to be in the Cub Scouts. It also helps that he spends loads of one-on-one time with his dad, so it’s not like he’s missing out on any father-son time by not being in the  Scouts.  It would be much more difficult if he really wanted to join. But there are some things worth saying no to. My husband, for his part, isn’t budging on this one. To him, the issue is too important, the message to kids too huge: you don’t join a club that won’t have your friends as a member.

We don’t actually think this is the time to tell our son that some people hate gays. Why introduce a concept that is morally unfathomable to him at this age? We also don’t need to tell him just yet that there are some people, including the leadership of the BSA, who despise his dad for his religious beliefs (see below). For now, we’ve just explained to our son that the Boy Scouts is a club that “doesn’t let kids in that they don’t like.” We’ve also explained that “if they think a parent is different from them, they won’t let that parent be a Scout Leader.” Our son didn’t think that wasn’t very nice. We left it at that.

Boy Scouts and religious discrimination: There happens to be another group that is unwelcome in the Boy Scouts of America: atheists. The bylaws contain a Declaration of Religious Principal: “The Boy Scouts of America maintains that no member can grow into the best kind of citizen without recognizing an obligation to God,” and clearly states that “atheists and agnostics” cannot participate. Which would preclude my husband, a devoted dad and an upstanding citizen who has served his country for 17 years, from being a Scout leader. So the obvious question for our son, should it ever come up, would be: do you want to join a club that wouldn’t have your dad as a member?

In addition to excluding atheists, the Boy Scout denies “Religion and Life” badges to kids whose religion does not square with the BSA’s anti-gay policies. The badges are given to “designate proficiency in the tenets of a Scout’s faith.” This editorial notes that BSA has banned Unitarian Universalists from awarding these badges and questions whether the the BSA will allow the award of Religion and Life Badges to Reform Jews, who have “adopted formal resolutions endorsing civil rights for gays and lesbians.” What message does this send to a child, to the devoted Scout who is told by his troop leader–sorry, no badge for you, the Boy Scouts don’t like your religion.

In defending itself, the BSA has stated repeatedly that the reason their anti-gay policy stands is that most Boy Scout families approve of it. I can’t imagine anyone in our community kicking a kid out of the Boy Scouts or Eagle Scouts for being gay, and I certainly hope that no one in our community would oust a troop leader for being gay (or atheist, for that matter).  

But I also believe that institutionalized policies of discrimination can only hold sway so long as individuals support the institutions that practice those policies. As long as the BSA enjoys a healthy membership, as long as it collects dues, the leadership will continue to believe that discrimination is the proper course.

What are your thoughts? Would you let your son join the Cub Scouts or Boy Scouts? And, if so, how would you talk to him about the BSA’s anti-gay policies, anti-atheist policies? If you are a Scouting family, are you trying to change the Boy Scouts from the inside out? Do you think the good outweighs the bad?

postscript: Interestingly, it was once the locals, not the nationals, who came down on the side of discrimination. Back in 1915, when racial discrimination was the norm at every level of society and government, the Boy Scouts took the official position that the organization should not discriminate on the basis of race. But the BSA allowed local troops to follow whatever rules governed their local school systems, which meant that Boy Scout troops in the South and elsewhere were segregated into white troops and “colored troops” until the late 1940s. Just as it would be hard to find someone to publicly defend racial segregation of Boy Scout troops today, in a few years, it will be difficult to find someone who will publicly defend exclusion of gays. The 11-member board that created the policy won’t be in power forever. Because decisions such as this are not made democratically, a few men on high with old-school opinions about hatred and discrimination are making policy for a diverse organization whose membership encompasses many more reasonable and inclusive views.

Update, Sept. 26: A commenter noted that her local troop leaders were unaware of the anti-gay, anti-atheist policies of the Boy Scouts. While this may be true, the policy is made very clear in the Boy Scouts bylaws:

With respect to positions limited to professional Scouters or, because of their close relationship to the mission of Scouting, positions limited to registered members of the Boy Scouts of America, acceptance of the Declaration of Religious Principle, the Scout Oath, and the Scout Law is required. Accordingly, in the exercise of their constitutional right to bring the values of Scouting to youth members, the Boy Scouts of America will not employ atheists, agnostics, known or avowed homosexuals, or others as professional Scouters or in other capacities in which such employment would tend to interfere with the mission of reinforcing the values of the Scout Oath and the Scout Law in young people.

A note on the Boy Scouts’ position against atheists, from Wikipedia:

The Bylaws of the BSA contain a non-sectarian Declaration of Religious Principle. This was adopted in the first decade of the organization to assuage the Catholic Church that the work of the YMCA in getting Scouting established in this country did not mean that it was a Protestant proselytizing organization:

“The Boy Scouts of America maintains that no member can grow into the best kind of citizen without recognizing an obligation to God…The recognition of God as the ruling and leading power in the universe and the grateful acknowledgment of His favors and blessings are necessary to the best type of citizenship and are wholesome precepts in the education of the growing members.”


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Sans Serif is the blog of author Michelle Richmond.

9 thoughts on “The Boy Scouts Dilemma: when the troop is good, but the organization is very bad

  1. I’ve struggled with my son being in Boy Scouts for the last four years. After their decision to continue the policy of excluding gay people, my husband and I simply couldn’t allow our 4th grader to be a part of the program. I don’t try to shove my politics and ideas down my kids’ throats but I’m not going to fund an organization that actively discriminates and you can’t be in Boy Scouts if you don’t pay your dues.

    I have friends that want to change it from the inside out which I think is great and I’m proud of them. That said, there wasn’t a tremendous emotional investment for my son (or us) where his troop was concerned so it wasn’t a difficult choice to not go back to BSA this year.

    A friend of mine researched and found a scouting group that’s co-ed and non-discriminatory and we’re working together to provide an alternative to our community. It’s a lot of work but I think it’s going to be awesome. I guess we’re choosing to lead by example?

  2. Kell–I think it’s terrific that you’re working with a non-discriminatory scouting group. I think many parents would welcome an alternative to the Boy Scouts.

    I don’t see this as a political issue, but a moral issue. Parents take their children to church in hopes of passing on their values to their children, and that is considered good parenting. I believe that teaching your child about loving thy neighbor by choosing organizations that don’t practice hatred is good parenting as well.

    I feel grateful that, like you, there’s no emotional investment for my son. There are many things he wants to do, and Scouts just has never been at the top of that list. He hears kids talking about it but never brings up, “I want to be in the Scouts.” I feel for parents whose kids really want to be a part of it.

  3. My sons have joined the Cub Scouts and that is no mention of any anti-gay policy or anti-atheism. I don’t think its fair to the children to pull them out of something that teaches them so many basic functional items in life because on some high level they have an anti-gay slogan. What does gayness have to do with the Boyscouts in any event? I brought the subject up to the local leaders and they had no idea what I was talking about — most of the meetings are run by the Parents and the funding goes back to the Boys for camping equipment and things for them to use. Its sad that some parents would deny their children such a wonderful opportunity because of some bureaucratic rif raf that has no practical application to the children. There are just some people out there that will the negative in anything and their negative proliferation is such a drain on society. All I know is that my sons love it and are learning a lot and the issue of Gay or Atheism has not come up once.

  4. Hi Cathy. While I understand your feelings, and while your local troop may not have experienced the discrimination directly, the policy has actually had a very negative impact on many children, in instances where the Scout leaders were removed for being gay, and even cases in which the kids themselves–including Eagle Scouts who had devoted years to the Scouts–were kicked out of the Scouts for being gay. For your local Scout leaders to be unaware of this fact is very strange, since it has been in every major newspaper numerous times in the last few weeks and months.

    You might be interested in this article by a former Eagle Scout, Commissioner, and Scout leader, who tried to start a non-discrimination policy in his local troop and was forbidden to do so: During the course of the conversation about discrimination, this person who had devoted so many years of his life to the Scouts revealed that he was an atheist, at which time he was told that he was no longer welcome to be a den leader.

    There are many different ways to learn life skills without being in the Boy Scouts. Good role models teach their children not just about building campfires, but also about treating others with respect. The BSA’s policies are in complete opposition to these values. I think it’s a highly personal decision, and I understand that many good people allow their children to do it. However, I also think that many people who have no problem being in the scouts would never dream of allowing their kids to join an organization that banned blacks, Jews, Muslims, or any other group based on race, religion, or other factors beyond the control of the individual.

    We tell children to be kind to one another on the playground. We expect them to not be cruel to children who are different from them. The BSA practices discrimination on an extremely public level, frequently and very vocally defending its decision to kick out gay Scout leaders and to exclude kids who identify as gay.

    While the BSA is less forthcoming about their antagonism toward atheists, it is very much a part of their rulebook. An organization that discriminates on the basis of religion is, in my opinion, not really such a “wonderful opportunity.” Is religious discrimination okay simply because the persons they are discriminating against are atheists? Would you feel differently if they banned Christians, Jews, or Muslims?

    On a separate subject, the Boy Scouts has also been in the news recently for actively protecting pedophiles. Again, this isn’t an organization that can claim to be taking the high road and to always have the best interests of children at heart. The release of documents showing that the BSA covered up allegations of sexual abuse and failed to report abusers to authorities for many years–thus allowing pedophiles to continue having access to children–has been huge news, and it would be impossible for anyone who is serving as a Scout leader not to know about it.

  5. Cathy–to clarify, I have added an update to the post quoting the Boy Scouts bylaws, which clearly state that atheists, agnostics, and homosexuals are not welcome.

  6. While some boyscout parents may not be aware of the discrimination, there are certainly atheist and homosexual members of their communities that are aware and impacted.I have asked my school’s PTO to withdraw support of our local cubscouts. Their response concerning the good cubscouts do is not the issue. How much stronger and more good could this group do if they were inclusive?
    I personally do not support groups that discriminate in any form. Boyscouts are a private organization and have the legal( not moral) right to do as they choose. We need to be careful of what our school PTO’s are doing. If they are financially supporting the boyscouts, they are in essence asking homosexual,and atheist to help support an organization that they and their children are not allowed to be part of. The local argument is bogus. Once the National organization finds out that you allow homosexuals , atheists, or agnostics they will strip your charter.
    We can’t teach our children that standing by watching a bully and staying silent is not okay and then stay silent ourselves when we see injustice. I would have liked boyscout parents who disagree with the policy let their leaders know nationally so that they can not continue making the claim that most of their members agree.

  7. My father and brother are both Eagle scouts, both my mom and dad are on the district board for boyscouts, and my mom helps run a local cub scout troop even though my brother is now off to college. We all love boyscouts and have seen it do amazing things for boys and helped them grow into wonderful people willing to help others and serve the community. However, I asked my mother how she has dealt with the religion aspect of cubscouts when a good 3rd of the boys families are athiest/agnostics, a few are Muslim,Hindu, and Buddhist, and then the small remainder are Christians. They are all required (at least I think they are) to complete a religion and faith merit badge before going on to boyscouts, and to get around the various religions my mother has them simply talk about spirituality in general and meditation (aka contemplating your spirituality). This helps them not exclude any of the boys.
    However, at the cub scout and the boyscout level, they do still back the anti-gay sentiment from the national scouting office, which I find tragic. ESPECIALLY since I know 2 of there soon to be Eagles are closeted and will likely be coming out once they move on to college. The boys know it, and I have no doubt even some of the parents know it as well, they just pretend it doesn’t exist. Even though I am not a member of the scouts myself, this breaks my heart, as I feel the organization has worked wonders for boys in helping them improve their lifestyle, social skills, and confidence.
    My brother wouldn’t have even been admitted to the college he goes to if he hadn’t been an Eagle. He didn’t have the grades, nor the SAT scores, but he wrote his essay on what it means to be an Eagle Scout. They accepted him despite being under qualified because they recognized the kind of drive and dedication it takes to earn your Eagle. I hope one day the Boyscouts can extend that to everyone, and not just the select few whom they deem acceptable.

  8. I want to say this as nicely as I can. Is your view of the Boy Scouts wrapped up around your view of what it means to be a good human? The idea of raising a son to be a good, upstanding human who is “morally straight” is exactly why thousands and thousands of straight parents support and participate in scouting. That is why I support Scouting – because they agree with my belief that homosexuality is not morally straight. Yes, I know and care for people who like fine wines have gone “off” and have chosen to be defined by their lusts and temptations and lived accordingly. My view may be called by some as close-minded, but in reality, it is because I care for my friends that I look honestly at their choices and can see the end result. It is an un-natural choice. It demeans the people involved. It is unsustainable biologically. And you’ll probably roll your eyes, but I’ll say it anyway – it is one major thing God gave his ultimate gift to save our lives from (and in some cases out of), but not to make us into. Because of those reasons and more, I will continue to support the Boy Scouts as long as they continue on the “Straight and Narrow Path.” Yes, I admit it. I love my son and my hopes for him include many right and good things and the training the Boy Scout offers, I believe, is some of the best training he will get in his life-time.

  9. This is an interesting article. I do see your points. However as a parent and a Scout leader, I would like to make a comment or two.

    First, you have stated that no one who is a Scout leader could be unaware of all this controversy. This is simply not true. In my own council, for example, every leader is given the option of whether or not to receive Scouting newsletters from district or council. I am a cubmaster. I have adult den leaders under me. New leaders come to me for such information. As I feel that such information is only derogatory towards the program and can serve no positive purpose, I would never mention it to them myself. In the past few years I have only received ONE piece of information from Scouting vaguely regarding this issue, and that was that only people from the professional organization are to make comments to the press regarding Scouting’s policies on any issue. Unless I read about it on my own, yes it is entirely possible to miss this issue as a Scout leader. I can also say that in the years that I have been a leader, not once have I heard any discussion of the issue among Scout leaders at any meeting or event.

    Now I will say that personally I have no problem with how others live their lives, unless they decide to tell me what to believe or to teach my children to believe. My problem with homosexual persons in Scouting is this:

    I am a parent. I believe that no one besides myself and my wife have the right to expose my child to even a hint that sex or sexuality even exists. Not the act or the concept. Until my child is 18 We are the only ones who have the right to mention this topic to our children. (School and sex ed notwithstanding, but that’s years down the line) I have no right to introduce the concept to the children of other parents. The concept of sex should never ever be allowed to enter the realm of early childhood. Now relate that to the problem at hand. If I have a leader or Scout who comes into the pack who is homosexual and mentions it for any reason where the kids can hear it, then the kids are exposed to the concept. The person who causes my son to ask me what does gay mean? Has done harm to my family. I now have to try to make my kid forget what he heard. He is simply too young for any of this. I believe that ALL Scouts are.

    I have asked people this. How can homosexuals join the scouts yet still completely protect every scout from any hint that sex exists? This is not, to me discrimination. If I were a leader of an older Scout Troop and I heard any Scout talking about boy-girl situations, I would quash it. It has no place in Scouting. Why would I not do the same about boy-boy conversations? It’s not don’t ask don’t tell. It’s don’t even think about the concept because it’s inappropriate for young children of any persuasion, at least while they are in Scouting and around other Scouts. Morally straight is a Scout Law. It is not morally straight for young children to know about sex. It is definitely not morally straight to expose young children to the concept without their parent’s express consent. Can YOU tell me how to accomplish this feat?
    I know that every parent may not agree with me about the age of exposure, but that’s their choice

    There is also this…IF Scouting does agree to allow homosexuals into the organization under the plan that says each unit can proscribe their own policies, it will likely mean the end of Scouts. Camporees and Jamborees, long a way for Scouts from all over to meet, will likely vanish. Units that do not want their children exposed to units that do allow homosexuals will never allow their children to participate in District, council, regional or national events. The Overall organization will very likely lose all cohesion.
    Add to all this the idea of adding atheists. One parent of an atheist child let him join scouts without reading about the policy. Then he accused Scouting of discrimination when his son’s Pack continued to say the pledge of Allegiance at every meeting. He said that they had no right to make his son uncomfortable by talking about God. To meet his demands, Scouting would have to reorganize their basic belief system, and then deny the right of faith to other Scouts, lest they offend any atheist Scouts. How far do we go to make Scouting for everybody? In the end, these changes will simply destroy the organization that homosexuals say they want to join. I haven’t even pursued the mass exodus of charter sponsors that will simply drop their troops and packs . The leaders who will quit.

    this is not a simple matter, and Scouting will suffer if this happens. I personally feel that if they do this, it will mean the end of Scouting. Who will that help? Will the same people who want to be in proudly proclaim that they helped bring about the downfall of a discriminatory organization?
    Do they win by destroying what they say they want? What they get will not be the Scouting that they say they want to be a part of. It will be like forcing a company out of business, and putting up their shingle on the empty building just to say that your part of ‘scouts’.

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