Scouting is good for our youth. To achieve greatness, the scouting movement needs to break the tethers of current policies that have evolved from unenlightened thought: policies that exclude some people from participating. The national organization of the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) recently announced that it may lift its ban on gays; a decision could come as early as this week’s upcoming executive board meeting. I wholeheartedly support this change. In my view, the national organization is taking a step toward aligning official policy with a contemporary interpretation of the principles and ideals of scouting. Communities across the country have been struggling with this issue for more than a decade. In 2010, the First Church in Belmont, Unitarian Universalist, prepared a 73 page research study to shape their policy regarding the BSA and local scouting units. I believe that my personal story is representative of the struggles communities have faced. It also provides insight into the evolution of our collective thinking about how to cope with this issue.
All Scouting is local. The Town of Bedford Massachusetts benefits from having two fantastic Boy Scout Troops. These troops follow the written policy of the Boston Minuteman Council, which affirms nondiscrimination: “The Boston Minuteman Council serves youth through volunteers in Packs, Troops and other units without regard to color, race, religion, ethnic background, sexual orientation or economic status.” Further, all troops have a chartering organization (church, non-profit, etc.) that may enforce a nondiscrimination policy as well. It is important to know that although the policy of the national organization has received a lot of media attention, it is a web of individual councils and units that drives the scouting movement. Many local troops practice nondiscrimination already.
I am an Eagle Scout and an adult leader for one of the local troops. My oldest son is also an Eagle Scout and my youngest son is on track to become one as well. My daughter, the middle child, spent a short period as a Venture Scout (yes, girls can be Boy Scouts too). My involvement with this issue began in 1998 when the national BSA organization stopped recognizing the Religion in Life awards given by Unitarian Universalist churches to youth in their congregations. BSA took this action because the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) publicly disagreed with the BSA policy toward gays. In 2002, the Senior Minister at First Parish in Bedford, Rev. John E. Gibbons, gave a sermon about the complexities and ethical dilemmas caused by this conflict. It was an excellent sermon, but emotions on this issue were strong and being a member of both organizations was complicated.
Time passed. One day, my youngest son, who had observed his friend get a religious award from the First Church of Christ Congregational, Bedford, asked me “Dad, why can’t I get the UU Religion in Life award?” Why not indeed? My daughter, and others in the Senior Youth Group at First Parish, enlightened my response with their report on their trip to Koinonia (a Christian farm community in Georgia, founded in 1942). Inspired by the stories that these youth told about integration during the civil rights movement (Koinonia was envisioned to be an interracial community where blacks and whites could live and work together), and The Cotton Patch Gospel, I borrowed a set of audio CDs from the Director of Religious Education so that I could hear Clarence Jordan speak for myself. He was a spiritual guide who informed Koinonia’s work towards brotherhood among all people. I heard a clear and compelling message about living by example; not withdrawing from people with whom you disagree and becoming a hermit, and not practicing in-your-face activism to convert people to your point of view; but rather living in the real world while quietly working for change. The time had come to reestablish the Religion in Life award at First Parish, even if it was not recognized by the national BSA.
Rev. John Gibbons was supportive. In 2009, he came with me to meet with my local troop committee and everyone agreed that this was a good idea. Teaming up with another Parishioner who runs the Coming of Age program, we were able to make a plan. Since we started, First Parish has run the Religion in Life program three times and awarded the badge to seven boys (including my son), many of whom went on to become Eagle Scouts. Other people around the country constructively challenged the national BSA policy as well. One young man, Zach Wahls, stands out for me as an especially thoughtful example of how to respond to this issue. As an Eagle Scout, who did not withdraw from scouting, he delivered three boxes of petitions in 2012 to the BSA demanding change on behalf of Jennifer Tyrrell, who the BSA removed as a den leader due to her sexual orientation. Upon learning of Zach and Jennifer’s story, my older son (now an adult) and I both signed the petition.
I am hoping for change this week, but this is only one step in a journey. Existing BSA policies attempt to dictate not only who people love, but also how they think about the world and its creation. Discrimination derived from ignorance is unacceptable. BSA policy needs to evolve so as to be open to a full spectrum of beliefs, including those of atheists and agnostics. Instilling the principles of the Scout Oath and Law requires no creed or dogma. Outstanding citizens should be free to both choose their partner and think as they wish.
I do have faith. I believe that the young men whom I have witnessed emerging as Eagle Scouts here in Bedford will help to change the BSA for the better. They are tomorrow’s scouting leaders. I hope that they live in the real world, which means tolerating differences of belief while upholding their values and working for change. I believe that these young men will make the rising star of scouting shine brighter.