07/26/2012 03:34 pm ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016

Teaching Tolerance to Boy Scouts

What is the impact on young boys of the reaffirmation by the leadership of the Boy Scouts of America of its ban on gays? What do young scouts or aspiring scouts -- cubs, boys, and eagles -- think about when they learn that a scout leader they trusted and admired has been dismissed because he is gay, a den mother whom they adored and respected has been dismissed because she is gay, or a friend with whom they had bonded has been dismissed because he is gay? What kind of message is communicated by the ignorant and intolerant actions of the BSA leaders? If these youngsters happen to ask questions, how do adults respond? What do their parents tell them? Do they try to avoid the subject by suggesting that it's too complicated to talk about? Do they tell these youngsters that the BSA leadership did the right thing because scripture says that homosexuality is wrong, immoral, and unclean? Or is there a possibility that adults might use the BSA's exclusionary policy to try to teach these young boys tolerance and understanding?

One of the central missions of the BSA is to teach values. So, if a scout asks his mother or father to explain what values are furthered by a policy that discriminates against people because of their sexual orientation, how should they respond? I suppose they could discuss the great dissenting opinion by Justice John Paul Stevens in Dale v. Boy Scouts of America -- the case that held that firing a scout leader because he is gay does not violate the constitution -- to demonstrate the hypocrisy of the BSA's ban. Indeed, it may be that the scout is acquainted with the charter of the BSA, and he might tell his parents that the charter describes the values of scouting as self-reliance, learning scout-craft, and being taught patriotism, honesty, courage, and, indeed, tolerance. Nowhere in the charter does it say anything about excluding homosexuals. Indeed, the boy might further wonder why homosexuals are banned when the BSA's mission statement declares that "neither the charter nor by-laws permits the exclusion of any boy." Also, how can the boy reconcile the ban on gays when the language in the charter states that "membership shall be representative of all the population in every community"?

The boy might also notice that the scout oath and scout law are inconsistent with the ban. For example, the scout oath requires the scout to promise to be "obedient," which includes "obeying the laws of his community and country." Laws banning discrimination based on sexual orientation are increasingly common, and the nation has become increasingly open and tolerant of homosexuality. The American Psychiatric Association years ago removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders; the Girl Scouts of America accept gays; the military repealed its ban on gays; many religious groups -- United Methodist Church, Episcopal Church, Reform Judaism -- reject discrimination against gays. The Supreme Court in Lawrence v. Texas struck down as unconstitutional state laws criminalizing sodomy between consenting adults.

But what if the boy is told by his parents -- echoing the argument of the leadership of the BSA -- that the Scout Oath mandates that a scout be "morally straight" and "clean," and that homosexuality, according to the BSA leaders, is inconsistent with that oath? However, assuming the boy is familiar with the scout Handbook, the boy would know that there is nothing in the Handbook that remotely suggests or implies that homosexuality is inconsistent with the values of scouting. The scout Handbook defines "morally straight" as being a person of "strong character" whose life is guided by "honesty, purity, and justice." As the Handbook instructs, being morally straight requires a scout to "respect and defend the rights of all people." According to the Handbook, "a key word is 'courage.'" "A boy's courage to do what his head and heart tell him is right." There is nothing in the Handbook associating being morally straight with a person's sexual orientation.

And being "clean"? According to the Handbook, being clean is more than washing off dirt. Some dirt won't wash off, such as "racial slurs and jokes making fun of ethnic groups or people with mental or physical limitations." Indeed, the Handbook teaches tolerance; a scout "defends those who are targets of insults." There is nothing in the Handbook associating the term "clean" with a person's sexual orientation.

Perhaps the leadership of the BSA, in their misguided policy, has given young boys a unique opportunity to really learn about the values of being a boy scout. The boy may reflect on this nation's dark history of bigotry and prejudice -- against women, against non-citizens, against racial and ethnic minorities -- and view the actions of the BSA leadership in the context of that sorry tradition. If the young boy really aspires, as the Handbook teaches, to be honest, pure, and just, and to behave courageously, then the scout or aspiring scout will be able to find for himself the right path to take. If in fact the key word is "courage," then the boy will understand that despite the mean-spirited position of the BSA, the courage that a scout must display is as the Handbook teaches "the courage to refuse to do what his heart and head say is wrong."