Our view: Removal of ban on gay Scouts signals broad shift in public opinion

May 29, 2013 10:46:04 AM



Some day, when the perspective of time permits a dispassionate view of what is now called the Gay Rights Movement, May 23, 2013, will stand as one of its milestone moments. 


On that date, The Boy Scouts of America's National Council approved a resolution to remove the restriction denying membership to youth on the basis of sexual orientation alone effective January 1, 2014. While the prior membership policy never denied membership to boys based on sexual orientation but rather stated a ban on membership for "open and avowed homosexuals," the removal of this wording now provides for "open and avowed" i.e. "coming out" homosexuals boys in Scouting. The ban on openly gay adult scout leaders remains in effect, but this, too, seems a ban that will not long persist. 


The BSA's change in policy comes as the U.S. Supreme Court ponders two cases involving gay marriage. The the Court is expected to announced its decision by the end of June. 


To date, 12 states, not including California, and the District of Columbia recognize same-sex marriage.  


What is most interesting about the Boy Scouts case is that the change came not through legislation or litigation, but through the court of public opinion. 


Even those whose views are least tolerant of homosexuality will concede that public opinion has changed dramatically over the past 20 years, as the BSA decision clearly illustrates. 


Although the BSA's policies have not been immune to legal challenges over the years, the courts have consistently upheld the private organization's right to decline membership to gays. The BSA was free to make its own decision about maintaining a ban on gay membership or discarding the policy. 


Why, then the change of heart? 


Funding and participation appear to be key motivators. 


About 50 local United Ways, including those in Cleveland, Miami, Orlando, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Seattle, have withdrawn all funding for Scouting. The BSA has also lost all funding from several large corporations that had been regular donors, such as Chase Manhattan Bank, Levi Strauss, Fleet Bank, CVS/pharmacy and Pew Charitable Trusts, which had consistently supported the BSA for more than 50 years. A number of public entities (including the cities of Chicago, San Diego, Tempe, Ariz., and Santa Barbara, Calif., as well as the states of California, Illinois, and Connecticut) have canceled charitable donations that had historically been granted to the Scouts. In 2012, Intel, the BSA's largest corporate donor, officially withdrew its financial support from any troop that cannot sign a statement confirming that the troop does not discriminate based on creed or sexual orientation. 


Meanwhile, participation in Scouting has fallen from 3,411,852 in 1999 to 2,658,794 in 2012, a decline of 22 percent. 


It would be difficult to attribute the decline in funding and participation to any one factor. 


The decision of the BSA's National Council to lift the ban on gay membership certainly reflects the changing public attitudes towards gays. Corporate sponsors are predictably sensitive to public opinion.  


While the Supreme Court's decision on the gay marriage question is not expected to be the final word on the subject, it seems likely the decision will reflect that change in mainstream views. It seems a matter of time before gay marriage will be upheld on a national basis, although Mississippi is likely to be among the last to permit it. 


Ultimately, the changes that are wrought by public opinion are far preferable to those compelled by legislation or litigation. Roe v. Wade didn't end the debate over abortion, after all. It fueled it. 


Clearly, when such issues can be resolved by the consent of the people, it represents the best possible resolution.