When the Boy Scouts of America announced this week that it was delaying a decision to end a ban on openly gay troops and leaders, some noted that the organization seemed to be walking a treacherous line.
The Scouts have long had a policy forbidding openly gay children and adults from participating in the program, and more than a decade ago, the Supreme Court upheld its right to the ban. But in recent months, pressure from gay rights activists, corporate donors and religious organizations has increased, and the Scouts' decision to delay a vote on ending the ban reveals the difficulty organizations with anti-gay policies face as gay rights become increasingly mainstream.
Much of the pressure is coming from corporate America, which has shifted dramatically over the last several years, creating internal policies that protect gay and lesbian employees and publicly supporting same-sex marriage. Last April, when the Scouts declared at an annual meeting that it would not change gay-members ban, a number of its biggest corporate donors stopped giving. UPS, Intel, Merck and United Way halted contributions, each citing its own internal anti-discrimination policies.
The chief diversity officer of Intel, which gave $700,000 in 2010, wrote in September that, "Due to significant growth in the number of organizations funded, earlier this year we revisited our policies associated with the program, and applied new rigor that requires any organization to confirm that it adheres to Intel’s anti-discrimination policy in order to receive funding."
Under the Boy Scouts' latest proposal, it would no longer require local chapters to exclude openly gay people, but would allow those individual chapters to decide whether to allow gay membership. This compromise was met with criticism from both sides.
The Family Research Council, a conservative anti-gay organization, along with 41 other groups, took out an ad in USA Today urging the Scouts to "show courage," and "stand firm for timeless values." The Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights group, put out a press release making it clear that companies who gave to the Scouts would still not be eligible for a top score on HRC's Corporate Equality Index.
In a statement announcing the decision to delay a vote on the matter, the Boy Scouts acknowledged the flood of comments received since suggesting a change:
"In the past two weeks, Scouting has received an outpouring of feedback from the American public. It reinforces how deeply people care about Scouting and how passionate they are about the organization ... After careful consideration and extensive dialogue within the Scouting family, along with comments from those outside the organization, the volunteer officers of the Boy Scouts of America’s National Executive Board concluded that due to the complexity of this issue, the organization needs time for a more deliberate review of its membership policy."
A vote on a new policy is expected in May, at the organization's annual meeting when roughly 1,400 members of the group's national council will weigh in. According to the Boy Scouts, around 70 percent of these members are affiliated with religious organizations; Mormons, United Methodists and Catholics make up the largest share.
To several gay rights activists, this did not bode well. Others were frustrated by the delay. "It's like, open your eyes, wake up, it's 2013, you've already had gay scouts ... there's no danger, just change your policy," said John Nash, a former scout himself and an advertising consultant specializing in outreach to gay customers.
But some religious leaders say it's not so easy. "We're trying to do the best we can to represent our denomination and make a good decision," said Larry Coppock, the United Methodist Church's national director of Scouting ministries, and one of the leaders who petitioned the Scouts to delay the vote. "The church is divided over this, so we continue to have discussions about it,"
While he would not discuss what he personally thinks the Scouts should do, Coppock said, "I think the discussion the Boy Scouts are having is a good one."
But some corporate-image experts disagree, saying a prolonged conversation like this could be damaging.
"They're trying to play both sides of an argument," said Jonah Berger, a professor at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. "There's obviously a big chunk of their constituents who are for gay marriage and who care about gay rights, and on the other hand there's a part of their constituents who don't feel that way. So it's almost like they're trying to be two brands at once, and that's very difficult to do."
Chick-fil-A, the chicken fast-food chain that recently was criticized for donating money to anti-gay groups, is facing a similar predicament, he said.
"I don't know that there's an easy way to solve this as a brand; you have a choice to be ahead of the times or behind the times. I'd go with being ahead of the times. But I'm not them."