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February 11, 2013

Scouting the horizon

The Boy Scouts of America risk being on wrong side of history by making discrimination an option.

The Boy Scouts of America placed themselves firmly outside the 21st century last summer, when the national organization voted to uphold its ban on openly gay members. Late last month, the leadership indicated that it was open to changing the policy. Last week brought the news that the organization would punt on any changes at least until May.

Come this spring, it looks like the Boy Scouts may well permit local scouting organizations to decide for themselves whether to allow gay Scouts and Scoutmasters. In other words, the Scouts’ longstanding gay ban will lapse, but local chapters may continue excluding gay members. Supporters of such a piecemeal solution rationalize it on the grounds that forced acceptance of gay members would generate a backlash among many conservative, church-sponsored units. Better to allow those groups to evolve over time than to impose change from above.

The notion that forced change is socially destabilizing has deep philosophical roots. The 19th-century liberal theorist Thomas Hill Green anchored his skepticism of top-down change in his belief in the importance of civil society. Green argued that we shouldn’t see the world as composed solely of individuals and states. Instead, the most immediate social phenomenon we should focus on is civil society—the set of cooperative, voluntary relationships that allow individuals to situate themselves within a broader polity. It is through civil society that people accept and enact big social changes. Change, then, is an organic process, best secured when participants in civil society reach a non-coerced consensus that rights and protections ought to be extended to once-excluded groups.

Green’s conception of proper change is not without its merits. Robust popular support undoubtedly makes social change much more sustainable. But should a liberal society be in the business of withholding protections from the minority until the majority has decided such protections are permissible?

Arguments like Green’s fail to answer for the fact that the most vulnerable members of minority groups often reside in areas where the majority is downright hostile to their concerns. With the 40th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision having just passed, we’ve heard renewed debate about whether abortion rights would have been better secured via popular consensus, rather than judicial edict. But had women’s reproductive freedom remained a matter for states to decide, it’s certain that women in Massachusetts would have a very different level of autonomy than women in Mississippi. As it stands, nearly nine in 10 U.S. counties lack access to abortion clinics. One shudders at the thought of how much more difficult it would be to obtain reproductive health care had the abortion issue remained a matter for the states.

Just as a state-by-state approach to abortion rights would have jeopardized the health and freedom of millions of American women, a unit-by-unit solution to the Scouts’ gay membership policy would disadvantage countless gay adolescents and Scoutmasters. Those who believe that issues like gay marriage should be decided at the state level claim that gays living in anti-gay states can simply vote with their feet by moving elsewhere. Affluent professionals can flee the conservative confines of Kansas for the more convivial climate of Connecticut, for instance. But many gays lack the resources to simply pack up and leave—not least the millions of gay adolescents who live in parts of the country where LGBT rights have yet to be fully embraced. For these children, preteens, and teens, setting out for more friendly territory isn’t a viable option. To them, the Boy Scouts’ proposed compromise amounts to nothing more than a dismissive “Tough luck.”

Because the Supreme Court upheld the Scouts’ gay ban in 2000 on free speech grounds, Congress and the states can’t mandate that the Scouts accept gay members. The onus is on the organization’s national leadership. The leadership’s fears about the negative reaction to a blanket policy change may seem reasonable at first glance. After all, conservative churches sponsor many of the nation’s scouting units. In a nation ever conscious of infringements on religious liberty, forcing such organizations to contradict religious dogma makes many of us uncomfortable. But in the 1960s, no small number of local governments, businesses, and, yes, churches were equally sincere in their conviction that forced racial integration was wrong. Several decades from now, the Scouts’ ban on gay members will seem just as unthinkable as segregation. The question is whether the organization’s leadership will take its place in history as a reluctant and late force for progress, or as a cast of morally bankrupt characters.

Luke Brinker is a graduate student in the MAPSS program.

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