Boy Scouts ends ban on gay scouts, but not gay leaders: Good enough?

The Boy Scouts of America got muted cheers from gay-rights supporters for changing part of its controversial, longtime policy

Former scout master Mark Noel holds up a new merit badge of inclusion at a press conference one day before the BSA announced its new policy.
(Image credit: AP Photo/LM Otero)

The Boy Scouts of America voted Thursday to allow gay scouts into the organization, starting next January. This reversal of decades of BSA policy passed by a comfortable 61 percent to 38 percent margin at a meeting of the group's national council, following years of controversy and a corporate boycott. But the Boy Scouts didn't even consider lifting their ban on openly gay scout leaders.

Not everyone was impressed with this compromise. "If the Boy Scouts of America is seriously aiming to reclaim its reputation for building character and leadership, it has to go further than it did Thursday," says The Boston Globe in an editorial. "Telling gay youths that they can join now, but will be kicked out as adults, isn't a tenable message: It's a crabbed political compromise."

And it's a compromise that ultimately benefits nobody, says The New York Times in an editorial.

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There is reason to celebrate the first turn toward inclusion, but the message to young people will still be: If you're gay, keep quiet because there is something wrong with you.... The right move would have been for the Scouts to reject discrimination based on sexual orientation — the direction that most Americans are moving.... The Boy Scouts organization — by tolerating a loathsome belief, pressed by religious activists, that equates homosexuality with deviance — has committed itself to rejecting good, dedicated leaders. [New York Times]

If you're one of the parents "who want their sons to be part of a beloved American tradition, but don't want to support discrimination," the Times editorial board continues, that quandary "has not been resolved."

The conservative parents, volunteers, and religious leaders who strongly opposed including gay scouts aren't at all appeased by the lingering ban on openly gay scout leaders. "The fallout from this is going to be tremendous," Robert Schwarzwalder at the Family Research Council tells The New York Times. "I think there will be a loss of hundreds of thousands of boys and parents."

John Stemberger, an evangelical Christian leader from Florida who led a push to block the measure, says that like-minded parents and organizations are meeting next month to discuss forming an alternative "character development organization for boys." Bryan Fischer of the conservative American Family Association welcomes such departures:

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But that didn't happen. "To its credit, the Mormon Church — the single largest sponsor of Scout troops — said the change won't affect its support for Scouting," says USA Today in an editorial. "The Catholic Church didn't go quite as far, saying it would need to study the issue, but at least it didn't threaten to quit." That makes this decision a pretty decent compromise for the Boy Scouts:

Cheers should surely be muted because the Scouts couldn't bring themselves to take the next obvious step and welcome gay leaders. But considering how long and steadfastly the organization has clung to its wrong-headed ban on gays, the decision should be seen as a potentially transformational step forward.... Thursday's vote finally opens Scouting's doors to all boys, including gays. Their presence might well make it easier to fight prejudice in a new generation of Scouts, and in America as a whole. [USA Today]

Why didn't the big churches bolt? BuzzFeed's McKay Coppins has a theory:

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And that distinction between same-sex attraction and gay sexual activity holds true in Catholic teachings as well. Here's what the Boy Scouts actually agreed on:

Today, following [a lengthy] review, the most comprehensive listening exercise in Scouting's history the approximate 1,400 voting members of 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. The resolution also reinforces that Scouting is a youth program, and any sexual conduct, whether heterosexual or homosexual, by youth of Scouting age is contrary to the virtues of Scouting. [Boy Scouts of America]

Nobody really expects that to be the last word on the subject, however. "For one thing, I am sure that the conservative blowback on this issue will be harsh and severe," says Doug Mataconis at Outside the Beltway. Some will inevitably leave the Scouts and try to set up a rival organization with no gays allowed. On the other hand, Mataconis says, "it's going to be hard for the BSA to credibly make the argument that a ban on gay Scout leaders should remain in place while they are openly admitting openly gay members, especially since it isn't uncommon for former Boy Scouts to themselves become Scout Leaders when they enter adulthood."

In the end, this is a good step forward for the Boy Scouts.... There will undoubtedly be much vile coming from the Christian Right over this decision, but honestly that's just because they are recognizing that this is just another sign that they are losing the culture war over the issue of the cultural acceptability of homosexuality. Which, I would submit, is a good thing. [Outside the Beltway]

So, where does that leave us today? Celebrating — or cursing — a half-step forward in gay rights, says James Hamblin at The Atlantic. But when a massive organization like the Scouts "that professes values of a good, moral life" even half-embraces gay kids, that matters. "BSA is a celebrity in the arena of morality," Hamblin says. "When it endorses ideals, they do not manifest in a vacuum."

So, this essentially settled, we can soon go back to appreciating the BSA simply as a time-honored institution that teaches kids and young men about being good people in the real world. They still don't allow atheists, but as a religiously affiliated organization, that's a separate issue. If anyone is concerned for the fate of the American boy or the moral landscape of the nation now, they can always look to how things have turned out for the American girl. Girl Scouts, which is supported more by corporations and foundations than religious organizations, has had progressive positions on LGBT issues for years. [Atlantic]

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Peter Weber

Peter Weber is a senior editor at, and has handled the editorial night shift since the website launched in 2008. A graduate of Northwestern University, Peter has worked at Facts on File and The New York Times Magazine. He speaks Spanish and Italian and plays bass and rhythm cello in an Austin rock band. Follow him on Twitter.