THE BLOG

Scout's Honor? What Congress Could Learn From the BSA

05/22/2013 06:11 pm ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016

With each step toward equality this month comes a setback: Days after the 12th state signed marriage equality into law, a gay man was targeted and shot to death in New York. After France legalized same-sex marriage over the weekend, a Georgian mob pelted activists with rocks. And this week, in a paradox that has mounted all year, the National Council of the Boy Scouts of America will vote to recommend including gay scouts while excluding gay adult leaders.

The BSA's idea of progress is undermined by the organization's insistence on revoking a gay scout's membership on his 18th birthday. It suggests that he will prey on children the moment he enters adulthood. The ban on gay leaders, however, is not up for discussion at the council's annual meeting. Still, when the BSA mailed more than a million surveys to scouting families earlier this year, most young parents and teens disagreed with the policy.

"Maintaining one form of discrimination while ending another is not good enough," Graeme Reid, the director of Human Rights Watch's LGBT Rights Program, told me. "What message does it send to gay youth when gay leaders are excluded from the Boy Scouts movement? That gay adults are not suitable role models?"

An episode of NBC's The New Normal, "About a Boy Scout," examined this argument in March. David Sawyer, a gay man and proud Eagle Scout played by Justin Bartha, becomes an adored and admired leader during a weekend campout. But a father from the troop confesses to having reported David after a letter from the BSA arrives, stripping him of his Eagle honor. "You are the perfect role model," he tells David. "But the truth is, I don't want you to be the role model for my son." David, stunned, thanks him for his honesty.

"I think we sort of showed that you can't explain to a bigot that he's a bigot," show creator Ali Adler, a lesbian parent and a former girl scout, told me in a phone interview Friday. "Explaining to my child why it's probably not a great idea for him to explore Boy Scouts was heartbreaking. He didn't understand it."

That the BSA is even considering a reversal of its ban on gay scouts reflects our country's evolution on LGBT equality over the last 12 months. Last May, Vice President Joe Biden's remarks in support of same-sex marriage forced the president to address his own stance in an interview with ABC's Robin Roberts. In January, President Obama reinforced his support in his inaugural address. This month, three more states approved same-sex marriage. And next month, the Supreme Court will take up California's Prop 8 and the federal Defense of Marriage Act, two cases that would advance equality if overturned. Because DOMA defines marriage as being between one man and one woman, LGBT families are denied federal rights granted to straight ones, including military benefits and certain tax credits.

Last year, on the day before President Obama's interview with ABC, North Carolina voters approved a constitutional amendment defining marriage as a union of one man and one woman. Had Obama come forward with his support for same-sex marriage earlier, he might have swayed the state that helped elect him four years before. But his timing suggested that he didn't want to risk losing that diminishing base just before the 2012 election. He lost it anyway and maintains that marriage equality should be left to the states to decide.

Though same-sex marriage was already illegal in North Carolina, my home state cemented its intolerance by framing it in its constitution, thus ensuring that no state judge could touch it.

In an op-ed for The Charlotte Observer this month, Tami Fitzgerald, the executive director of the North Carolina Values Coalition, commends voters for passing the amendment in the face of "bullying and deception" from same-sex marriage advocates. Fitzgerald, who chaired the Vote for Marriage NC executive committee, argues that the amendment has not hurt families or hindered businesses over the last year. "Homosexual and lesbian couples can still have relationships with each other," she reasons.

They just can't marry each other.

Fitzgerald goes on to claim that the amendment "insulates" North Carolina from state and federal lawsuits, even if the Supreme Court overturns Prop 8, the California law restricting same-sex couples from marrying.

But Fitzgerald's claim is wrong. "A state can never insulate itself from its obligation under the U.S. Constitution to treat people equally, even if it amends its own constitution to enshrine inequality," Suzanne Goldberg, co-director of Columbia Law School's Center for Gender and Sexuality Law, told me. If next month the Supreme Court rules that denying marriage equality violates the 14th Amendment's equal protection guarantee, "North Carolina will have to abide by that ruling, as will every other state in the country," Goldberg added.

As for those "bullying" types whom Fitzgerald condemns, would she say the same about those bullying Republicans who filed a brief asking the Supreme Court to strike down Prop 8? Or those 100 bullying corporations that followed suit? Those bullying faiths, including the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, that now encourage inclusion of openly gay scouts?

In a piece for The American Conservative earlier this year, former Utah governor and Republican presidential contender Jon Huntsman called marriage equality "a conservative cause." While reporting an unrelated story in March, I asked Huntsman, a Mormon and a fellow Eagle Scout, if he had contacted the BSA after signing the brief urging the court to invalidate Prop 8.

"No, I haven't been in touch, and I haven't really thought it through," Huntsman told me. "They've got a board of directors, and the board of directors will undoubtedly try to do the right thing in an ever-changing world."

That time is now, though the BSA is free to do as it chooses; the Supreme Court assured the organization of that right long ago. Calling the proposed ban reversal "a single, divisive, and unresolved societal issue," the BSA's website advises that "everyone within the Scouting family must work to stay focused on that which unites us." If that's true, the council's vote to welcome gay scouts should be an easy and unanimous one.

Yet last month, for the ninth time since 1994, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act was reintroduced in Congress. The legislation would make it illegal to fire someone based on sexual orientation or gender identity. A vote to enact ENDA should also be easy and unanimous. But over the course of 19 years, Congress has failed to pass it.

If our public leaders can't embrace equality for all, how can we expect a private organization to do the same?