Opinion: Boy Scouts cannot justify exclusionary policies

Christina Chen, Author

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The morning before going to the Board of Review interview, the final trial for aspiring Eagle Scouts, my friend told me that he hoped the board members would not ask him about his religious beliefs; if they did, he may have to lie.

My friend, a Palo Alto High School student who chose to remain anonymous for this story, is an atheist, and according to a statement issued by the Boy Scouts of America National Council, the organization “believes that no member can grow into the best kind of citizen without recognizing an obligation to God.” Despite having worked extremely hard for this opportunity to present himself in front of the Board of Review, he was worried that they might find out about one of his most fundamental beliefs.

As someone who had watched him furiously writing the proposal for his Eagle Project and spending countless hours completing the badges, I was sad that he would have to hide an important part of himself to receive the fruit of his labors. It must have been even worse for Ryan Andreson, a 17-year-old whose Eagle Award was revoked after BSA found out he was gay, considering how close he was to achieving his goal only to have the honor taken from him at the last moment. With this case gaining much media attention and triggering debates at Palo Alto High School and nationwide, I wondered: Are the exclusionary policies of the BSA justified?

After all, the BSA is supposedly a private organization, and the Supreme Court has allowed it to exclude various groups based on the First Amendment policy of “freedom of association”. However, it also receives several forms of government support, including automatic promotion for Eagle Scouts in the military and a Congressional charter. As recently as 2005, Congress passed the Support Our Scouts Act, which gave the BSA access to government facilities to host scouting activities.

As an organization supported by the government, the BSA should abide by the rules of government-afflicated groups. Government cannot support groups that discriminate; the purposes of governmental organizations are to provide equal services to all. Not to mention, many of the BSA policies are based on the beliefs of religious institutions, namely those of its biggest supporter — the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. But the First Amendment expressly prevents the government from establishing any religion in the United States. The BSA need to clarity its position as either a private or a public organization; if the BSA truly want to hold on to its policy of exclusion for the non-religious and homosexual, then it should refuse government support. If not, it has to change its policies to provide comparable services to everyone.

Unlike the BSA, the Girl Scouts of the U.S.A. permits LGBTQ members and leaders and allows atheists and agnostics. The Scout Association in the United Kingdom has also made explicit efforts to recruit gay members. Recently, it has also sent out a video asking members to consider admitting atheists as full members. This clearly disproves the BSA claims that accepting homosexuals and atheists would hinder its core values, as many similar organizations have been moving in the direction of equality.

In fact, these policies go against the very values it has been trying to defend. How can the BSA build strong character and courage in young boys if it forces them to hide their thoughts? Doesn’t that teach them to be ashamed of their own identity? As my friend said, “The policy in itself violates the Scout law itself in being courteous and kind.”

When my friend was eventually accepted as an Eagle Scout, my feelings wavered between elation that he finally received what he deserved, and sadness that he, like “Jeremy” in the recent Verde article, had to hide an important part of himself to do so.

But it seems that the winds of change are starting to stir. I applaud the courage and determination of the Palo Alto Cub Scouts and their parents, who are sending a resolution protesting against the national Boy Scout policy, as well as those former Eagle Scouts who pledged their badges to Ryan Andreson’s cause.

I wish I could do the same. Alas, I am not an Eagle Scout. Nor am I a boy, for that matter. And even if I were, I probably wouldn’t go up the ranks all the way through high school, considering how I quit the Girl Scouts after two weeks of experimenting. But I respect all of those who do fulfill all the requirements, because I can tell you from my two weeks of experience: It takes a lot of work and commitment.

And by observing some of my friends in Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts, I can also tell that these experiences can change lives for the better. It is with this respect that I petition the BSA to change its exclusionary policies so that everyone can enjoy the same opportunities.