The Boy Scouts’ Doomed Compromise

Boy Scouts 4On May 23, delegates representing the Boy Scouts of America voted to adopt a change in their membership policies. For many years, the Scouts held that homosexual activity was inconsistent with the spirit of scouting and that therefore openly gay people could not be admitted to the organization. This will no longer be the case.

The change the delegates voted for is a compromise of sorts. For the last decade and a half, liberal activists have sought a complete repudiation of the ban. During the same period traditionalists have sought to retain it. The new policy appears to split the difference: It permits openly homosexual boys to be members of the Scouts, but it does not allow openly homosexual men to be Scout leaders.

Whatever else one thinks about the new policy, this much is certain: It can’t last. No doubt many of the delegates thought they would be buying peace and quiet by enacting this compromise, but they are bound to be disappointed.

The compromise policy’s short life is predictable, in the first place, in light of the kind of people it is meant to placate, people that the Scout delegates have seriously misjudged. Socially liberal political activists don’t believe in compromise. They believe in winning.

If they believed in compromise, there would be no constitutional “right” to abortion, but a variety of more or less permissive abortion regimes across the states. If they believed in compromise, there would be no legal crusade for same-sex marriage, but a willingness to accept same-sex civil unions.

Indeed, proponents of gay-friendly scouting, the very activists whose demands the present compromise is meant to satisfy, have already proclaimed that the fight will go on: The next goal is to open the Scouts to openly homosexual Scout leaders.

The new policy’s eventual doom, however, is ordained not only by the incorrigible aggressiveness of American social liberals, who cannot bear to see any traditional institution untransformed according to their own vision of the good, but also by its own incoherence.

Whether one agrees with it or not, there is a kind of obvious consistency in banning openly homosexual members from an organization that holds that homosexual activity is morally problematic. To be sure, dispositions and acts are morally distinguishable, and it is therefore possible to hold that only homosexual acts, and not necessarily homosexual desires, are blameworthy. Nevertheless, as a practical matter, being an open homosexual is indistinguishable from proclaiming a belief that homosexual acts are morally innocent. After all, if one accepted the traditional view that such acts are morally impermissible, one would ordinarily keep one’s inclination to them to oneself.

The opposite policy would have its own kind of coherence. If the Scouts have rejected their former belief that homosexual activity is inconsistent with being morally “clean” and “straight,” it would make sense to lift the ban on homosexuals entirely. If the Scouts don’t officially endorse any particular sexual morality, there is no need to exclude anyone whose presence seems to proclaim a controversial opinion on such questions.

But what the Scouts have chosen to do instead is well-nigh impossible to defend. Is homosexual activity morally problematic or is it not? If it is, why permit members who have chosen to proclaim to the world their inclination to it? If it is not, or if it is a question in which the Scouts have no interest, why exclude homosexual men from positions as Scout leaders?

Presumably the reason for the old policy banning all openly gay persons from scouting was the concern that by announcing an “identity” rooted in sexual inclinations, they would set a bad example for the impressionable young members.

This concern, however, is present whether we are talking about Scout leaders or ordinary members. On the other hand, if the Scouts are agnostic on this matter of sexual morality, there is no question of setting a bad example at all, and no reason to exclude either practicing gay leaders or members.

Some might contend that what appears incoherent from the standpoint of moral principle can be perfectly coherent from the standpoint of more practical concerns. That is, perhaps the ban on homosexual Scout leaders is being retained to protect the Scouts from possible sexual abuse of boys by men, a scandal that could be ruinous to the organization. After all, only a great fool would think it harmless to let an adult man take a group of teenage girls on a camp-out.

Thus the organization might ban openly gay Scout leaders not because of any moral disapproval of the gay lifestyle, but because of the perils of sexual attraction between leaders and members.

This position sounds reasonable at first, but its apparent coherence vanishes on closer examination. For of course the danger of sexual misconduct must exist when there is sexual attraction among the members as well as between leaders and members. A sexual relationship between, say, a 20-year-old Scoutmaster and a 17-year-old Scout would cause public scandal and raise the possibility of devastating legal action. But so would a sexual relationship between a 17-year-old Scout and a 14-year-old Scout. Accordingly, the Scouts’ new policy is incoherent even on the basis of such institutional self-protection.

Of course, incoherence alone does not spell the end of any given policy. Human beings are only imperfectly rational at best, and they live with incoherence all the time. Rational indefensibility, however, is a serious problem when one can expect a policy to be publicly challenged–when one can expect insistent demands that it prove its needfulness. As I have already suggested, the ambitions of gay rights activists ensure that such a public accounting is unavoidable.

Moreover, the emotional imperative at work in the attack on the Scouts’ traditional policy will be unchanged or even heightened by the present compromise. One of the most compelling appeals that has been made by opponents of the traditional policy is an appeal to compassion: It seems cruel to exclude gay boys from the organization. This appeal will now be deployed against the ban on gay Scout leaders, and it will gain force from the Scouts’ new inability to counter with any rationally consistent moral or practical position.

Indeed, in some ways the new policy might seem even more offensive to compassion than the old one. The feelings of homosexuals might be lacerated less by simple exclusion from Scouting than by being permitted to be members throughout their youth, only to be drummed out on reaching adulthood.

Finally–and here we reach what is possibly the shortest route to the new policy’s extinction–the Scouts have, by compromising with their adversaries and thereby compromising the coherence of their own position, opened themselves to lawsuits forcing them to admit openly homosexual Scout leaders as well as members. Some states have laws that forbid discrimination based on sexual orientation. The Scouts’ traditional policy runs afoul of such laws and was in fact challenged as a violation of New Jersey’s anti-discrimination laws in the latter part of the 1990s.

At that time, the Scouts prevailed against this challenge by claiming that this attempted application of state anti-discrimination law intruded on the organization’s First Amendment rights. In Boy Scouts v. Dale, the Supreme Court agreed. The First Amendment protection for freedom of speech, the Court ruled, includes an implied protection for freedom of “expressive association.” This freedom limits the extent to which the law can force members into an organization contrary to that organization’s own convictions. Thus the Scouts could ban openly gay members because they were organized in part to inculcate a moral teaching with which homosexual activity was inconsistent.

The plausibility of this constitutional defense of its membership requirements, however, depends on the very consistency that the Scouts have now abandoned. Obviously, American courts cannot treat a claim of expressive association as absolutely dispositive, as this would permit some organizations to defeat anti-discrimination laws at will.

Any restaurant, for example, could refuse service to blacks, claiming that such service was incompatible with the convictions of the restaurant owner. Such abuses are prevented by requiring that an organization claiming a First Amendment right to expressive association must show that it is actually engaged in expressive association, not just commerce or some other activity, and that the discrimination it is making is really essential to the expression in which it is trying to engage.

In the Dale case the liberal justices on the Court were willing to rule against the Scouts, holding that the traditional scouting references to being “clean” and “morally straight” were unclearly related to the question of homosexuality and were therefore mere pretexts for irrational discrimination. The more conservative justices, however, noted that surely the Scouts had a First Amendment right to define their own terms for themselves.

There is a difference, however, between specifying general terms and advancing mutually inconsistent positions. The former does not suggest bad faith while the latter does. Good luck to the Scouts in finding a rational basis on which to justify to federal judges an expressive association that requires excluding homosexual Scoutmasters but not homosexual members.


This article was originally published at Public Discourse and is used here with permission.

Carson Holloway


Carson Holloway is a political scientist and the author of The Way of Life: John Paul II and the Challenge of Liberal Modernity (Baylor University Press).

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  • LeticiaVelasquez

    I agree. Boys must NOT be endangered and if that means keeping Boy Scouts out of a parish, then sadly it must be so. The homosexualists have gotten hold of the Boy Scouts and will soon start making demands that they include ‘anti-bullying’ programs. The normal boy scouts will be ‘re-educated’ and those boys who are suffering from disordered sexuality will be celebrated. Just look at the public school where it was ‘gender bender’ day and children and teachers were told to cross dress.
    The ones who decry bullying are the very first to participate in it, when you give them a foothold in an organization.

  • pnyikos

    The legal pitfall is well explained at the end. Still, I think the best policy is:

    1. To draw a line in the sand, perhaps where adult homosexuals are concerned, perhaps where active sexual behavior within the troop is concerned, and to say we will pull out if that line is crossed;

    2. To cross that bridge when we come to it; and

    3. Meanwhile, in the troops affiliated with the Catholic Church, to be especially careful not to make it look like homosexual behavior is acceptable. Any form of active sex by Scouts under 18, in the troop or out of it, should be a violation of “morally straight” in the Scout Promise.

  • Sophie Sommers

    Leticia, what’s wrong with anti-bullying programs? Aren’t you aware that gay youth are at high risk of suicide because of bullying? Are you pro-bullying?

  • Marc Williams

    What we object to in school anti-bullying programs is that they are often Trojan horses designed by gay activists and those sympathetic to their cause to promote acceptance of homosexuality, bisexuality, transgenderism(the list continues to grow) as part of the wonderful sexual variety of human nature. Catholics believe these dispositions are objectively disordered. Programs with these components will only confuse kids in the formation of their sexual identities and encourage harmful sexual experimentation. Society always encourages what it publicly accepts.

  • JP

    Jesus would not exclude any child, even if he was “sexually disordered.” Remember what he said? “Whoever welcomes a child in my name, welcomes me.” Excluding gay males adults from serving as scout leaders is a different matter altogether. As a matter of safeguarding children from victimization by an adult who may have an agenda or sexual motive, this makes some sense. But remember, it’s the gay children that are being included by lifting this ban and that’s a wonderful thing. The scouts have a strict policy against ANY sexual activity in the group. That should be enough and just let the kids be kids.

  • leel004

    That WAS the policy. No sexual discussion, let alone activity. This changed when the BS Council changed the rule to allow activism.
    Now those who know what morally straight means, have to make a decision whether to leave or not, and what is so ugly in this is that many like my son are close to eagle …about a year.

  • stirenaeus

    It is irrational to “accept” active homosexuals, up to 18 years old, and at the same time “…be careful not to make it look like homosexual behavior is acceptable.” What part of active do you not understand?

  • JimmyChonga

    I sense LAWYERS were going to sue them into non-existence if this “compromise” wasn’t embraced by the BS. We have WAY TOO MANY lawyers and their ill effects are seen in way too many areas.

  • JimmyChonga

    Fine, JP. You be the first to let your son “tent overnight” with an openly gay scout. We’ll wait to hear from you how that went.

  • dumbox2

    There are homosexual men who prey on teenage boys. That is a fact that many of us men know about from our youth. This is something to teach your sons to be aware of. – love the sinner but hate the sin – and dont be stupid. Trust God and love your neighbor

  • Florin S.

    June 5th, at first I thought this was a good idea because I don’t like to see children ostracized. Then I heard a radical gay activist declare that this was just the first step…and remember, a boy with sexual feelings for other boys becomes an 18 year old sleeping in a tent with another boy; would we have young girls in the Boy Scouts? Isn’t a boy with sexual feelings for other males just like a girl emotionally? So we are actually hurting these boys by placing them where they will be tempted over and over…sexual harrassment and attempted rapes in the military are not only men against women – but men against men. The radical gay activists are in a minority and they don’t ask to be accepted they demand that their sexual activities be considered ‘natural and normal’ – well, that’s not going to happen because it isn’t. Our bodies were formed male and female to ‘fit’ for the purpose of procreation. A key is formed to fit into a lock…that is its purpose…I’m sorry for boys who have this same sex attraction…I don’t know the answers…we have to keep them and this whole situation in prayer as we have to pray for our country and our leaders …both Religious and secular leaders..

  • Florin S.

    June 5th, that’s the way I felt too…Jesus said: “Let the children come to Me and do not prevent them.” -but what happens when a 13 year old boy with sexual desires for other males becomes 18years old? There is already a report about an 18 year old scout sleeping in a tent with a younger boy and he sodomized the boy…I don’t know the answers…if the boys are acting out sexually or trying to seduce other boys…and, as I said, gay activists have already said this is just the first step in their agenda to have gay Scout leaders accepted…and they will stop at nothing to do this!!!

  • JimmyChonga

    All the same, you don’t have to GET cancer in order to know already it’s a BAG THING. The problem, as you have defined it, I AGREE WITH – “love the sinner, HATE the sin”; the problem is, HOMOSEXUALS ARE their SEXUALITY – there is no such distinction in them, by THEIR OWN admission. Your “argument” therefore does not apply in this case; they don’t accept the terms.

  • lisag

    It will not long before the law suits start from allowing gay members and later leaders. There will be sexual incidences that occur. As Catholics have we blinders over our eyes from the gay predator priests in our parishes. Boys alone with predator adults and teens is a sure formula for abuse. Why confuse the young person with the acceptance of a disordered sexual desire, because no one is going to tell a scout that his gay orientation is sinful and wrong. It is just like in parochial schools that accept gay parent’s children in the school. The teacher has to give a distorted view of sexuality and marriage, because you cannot tell a child that their parents are sinners.

    Catholic parishes that allow gay scouting are setting themselves up for future lawsuits and watering down of the faith.

  • cestusdei

    The people who are bullied are Christians. Those who bully are the homosexuals.

  • JohnH

    The policy specifically disallows activism on any social or political item.

  • JohnH

    That’s an overly broad brush you’re painting with, and one that the Church itself doesn’t accept.

  • Juergensen

    Sodomites and Muslims are the two riders of the Pale Horse of the Apocalypse: Death and Hades (Rev. 6:7-8). Once sodomites gain control of the West and Muslims gain control of the East – both near completion – these two minions of Satan will turn against each other and conflagrate the earth, bringing the Apocalypse.

  • Juergensen

    The sodomites want access to the young boys, and it’s not to teach them new campfire songs.