On this date, the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) was incorporated by Chicago publisher William Boyce.
The BSA stands alone among Boy Scout organizations around the world, and among other youth-serving organizations including the Girl Scouts, the Big Brothers/Big Sisters Association, and the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, in barring homosexuals. More than any other factor, the close relationship between the BSA and religious organizations like the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) — the Mormons — explains why the BSA pursued its antigay policy all the way to the Supreme Court.
Imported from England just after the turn of the twentieth century, the fledgling Boy Scout movement found quick friends in the YMCA, largely because William Boyce, a BSA founder, and Edgar M. Robinson, the YMCA’s first international secretary for boys’ work, were acquaintances, according to David Peavy, a former member of the National Catholic Church Committee on Scouting. Some YMCA clubs hosted Scout troops, and Peavy describes Robinson as essentially the Scouts’ first chief executive.
The BSA eventually broke out on its own after receiving a Congressional charter in 1910. Modeled on the Scouting movement launched in England by war hero Lord Robert Baden-Powell, the American version differed in one key area: its more formal connection to religious practice. Baden-Powell had built British Scouting on religious principles, but the BSA added an 11th element to the Scout Law: “A Scout is reverent toward God. He is faithful to his religious duties.” In case anyone missed that “go to church” message, the BSA constitution said, “No boy can grow into the best kind of citizenship without recognizing his obligation to God.” And the BSA borrowed from the three-tiered focus on “mind, body, and spirit” in the YMCA’s mission statement, Peavy says, when it developed its Oath:
On my honor I will do my best
To do my duty to God and my country
and to obey the Scout Law;
To help others at all times;
To keep myself physically strong,
mentally awake and morally straight.
Consequently, Catholic and Protestant churches and the Mormon Church found Scouting to be a perfect fit: the boys loved it, it had Christian underpinnings, and the BSA encouraged churches to mold their local Scouting programs according to their own religious-education standards. The Mormon Church, in an amicus curiae brief filed with a Boy Scouts case before the US Supreme Court in 2000 (Boy Scouts of America et al v Dale) put it best:
Because of Scouting’s devotion to the spiritual element of character education and its willingness to submerge itself in the religious traditions of its sponsors, America’s churches and synagogues enthusiastically embraced Scouting. . . .
For many religious organizations . . . the Scouting program is a means of youth ministry. At the same time, sponsorship by religious organizations has enabled the Scouting movement to expand and increase its influence on the nation’s boys.
By 1915, 4,000 of the nation’s 7,373 Scout units were chartered to Protestant churches, according to an analysis by the American Family Association Center for Law and Policy. By then the BSA also had a “Commissioner for Scout Work in the Catholic Churches,” whose job was to promote Catholic units. In 1918, Peavy says, a letter from the Vatican bestowed the blessing of Pope Benedict XV on Catholic Scouting.
But no group embraced Scouting more enthusiastically than the Mormon Church. On 21 May 1913, the Church became the first institution to be officially affiliated with the BSA program. Over the years, Scouting became the official youth-ministry program for Mormon boys. It serves not only for inculcating the beliefs of the Church, but as an outreach tool. Elder Robert Backman was recognized by the BSA in 1986 for his efforts in incorporating Scouting into the Mormon Church’s Young Men organization. He is quoted in the Aaronic Priesthood Boy Scout Guide:
As you know, we are vitally concerned about our youth and feel that with the proper attention we can save many more than we are doing at the present time. I am convinced that Scouting is a mighty activity arm to hold these boys close while they learn to appreciate the honor of holding the priesthood of God.
(. . .)
If we do all else and lose the young man, we have failed in our sacred stewardship. We must not allow a separation of priesthood, Scouting, or athletics.
(. . .)
Every phase of the Scouting program should help young men and their leaders understand that Scouting activities are carried out to accomplish priesthood purposes.
Apostle Thomas S. Monson said in a 1990 Mormon newsletter that the Church and its troops “serve together; they work together.” He added, “Every program I’ve seen from Scouting complements the objectives we are attempting to achieve in the lives of our young men, helping them strive for exaltation.” [Exaltation is the official expression in Mormon theology for a Saint becoming a god in the afterlife.]
The statement that the BSA does “not believe that homosexuality and leadership in Scouting are appropriate” first appeared in a letter in 1978 signed by the BSA’s President and Chief Scout Executive. However, it was an internal memorandum, never circulated beyond the few members of BSA’s Executive Committee, and remained, in effect, a secret Boy Scouts policy. Nevertheless, the organization later asserted that it was not a new policy to oppose and disfavor homosexuality — and, in support of that, to deny leadership roles to and occasionally expel “avowed” homosexuals. Rather, the BSA argued it was just enforcing long-held policy which had never been published or publicly challenged.
James Dale was awarded the rank of Eagle Scout — an honor given to only 3 percent of all scouts — after eleven years of Scouting. When he was a student at Rutgers University, Dale became copresident of the Lesbian/Gay Student Alliance. Then, in July 1990, he attended a seminar on the health needs of lesbian and gay teenagers. During the seminar, he was interviewed, and the work was subsequently published. James, who was an assistant Scoutmaster and looked forward to a lifetime in Scouting, was expelled after BSA officials read the interview in a local newspaper and Dale was quoted as stating he was gay. Never before hearing of any such rule against gays, Dale sued for reinstatement, charging BSA with violating New Jersey state civil rights laws which prohibited discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Interestingly, the BSA subsequently issued a Position Statement on Homosexuality in June, 1991 that states:
We believe that homosexual conduct is inconsistent with the requirements in the Scout Oath that a Scout be morally straight and in the Scout Law that a Scout be clean in word and deed, and that homosexuals do not provide a desirable role model for Scouts. Because of these beliefs, the Boy Scouts of America does not accept homosexuals as members or as leaders, whether in volunteer or professional capacities.
Dale’s case was first tried before Superior Court Judge Patrick J. McGann, who ruled against Dale, stating:
To suggest that the BSA had no policy against active homosexuality is nonsense. It was an organization which from its inception had a God-acknowledged, moral foundation. It required its members, youth and adult, to take the Scout Oath that they would be “morally straight.” It is unthinkable that in a society where there was universal governmental condemnation of the act of sodomy as a crime, that the BSA could or would tolerate active homosexuality if discovered in any of its members. . . . Men who do those criminal and immoral acts cannot be held out as role models. [Dale v. Boy Scouts of America, No. Mon-C-330-92]
Although McGann’s account of the BSA attitude toward homosexuals may be true, his interpretation of the “morally straight” clause in the Scout Oath as meaning heterosexual is certainly not. As mentioned earlier, the last clause of the BSA Scout Oath had its origin in the YMCA. [Ironically, the YMCA does not ban gays.] As historian Carolyn Wagner states:
The YMCA men in the Scouts gave the organization a distinctly Protestant orientation. In the rewrite of the Scout promise, they successfully lobbied for the inclusion of a line requiring the boy to be “physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight.” This line spoke to the significance of the Y’s emblem, a triangle representing spirit, mind, and body which, in turn, referred to the organization’s goal of furthering “all round development.” The Y men thought it particularly important that the BSA incorporate this line in the promise because they regarded Christ as the perfectly developed man and, therefore the ideal role model for youth, ALL youth.
Including even an indirect reference to Christ, when the BSA is supposed to be a “non-sectarian” youth organization, is problematical. “Non-sectarian organizations” as a rule do not involve themselves in theology. BSA claims that theology and religious instruction is to be left up to the parents and religious leaders of the boy — be his religious faith Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Native American, etc. — not BSA.
Furthermore, the historian George Chauncey notes that it was only in the 1910’s and 1920’s that the application of the term straight to a man who was considered — using the relatively new term — heterosexual, was first beginning to be used. However, Chauncey notes that the use of the term straight was a slang term and only used within the gay subculture. It’s first appearance in mainstream publications was in the glossary of a 1941 book on “sex deviants.” According to historian Jonathan Katz, this book identified the term straight as “being employed by homosexuals ‘as meaning not homosexual. To go straight is to cease homosexual practices and to indulge — usually to re-indulge — in heterosexuality.'” The definition of the term straight, meaning heterosexual, in society at large, did not occur until much later.
Eventually, Boy Scouts of America et al v Dale (530 US 640) was argued before the US Supreme Court. On 28 June 2000, a divided Court ruled that the First Amendment protects the BSA, as an “expressive organization” promoting the view that homosexuality is an unacceptable lifestyle, from excluding Scouts on that basis. Therefore, the organization has the authority to expel a gay assistant Scoutmaster. However, views with respect to homosexuality must be central to the BSA’s expressive purposes. Four Justices dissented, questioning whether admitting homosexual members, in the words of the BSA, “would be at odds with its own shared goals and values”:
BSA describes itself [in its own mission statement] as having a “representative membership,” which it defines as “boy membership [that] reflects proportionately the characteristics of the boy population of its service area.” . . . In particular, the group emphasizes that “[n]either the charter nor the bylaws of the Boy Scouts of America permits the exclusion of any boy. . . . To meet these responsibilities we have made a commitment that our membership shall be representative of all the population in every community, district, and council.” . . . (emphasis in original).
(. . .)
It is plain as the light of day that neither one of these principles — “morally straight” and “clean” — says the slightest thing about homosexuality. Indeed, neither term in the Boy Scouts’ Law and Oath expresses any position whatsoever on sexual matters.
(. . .)
BSA’s published guidance on that topic underscores this point. Scouts, for example, are directed to receive their sex education at home or in school, but not from the organization: “Your parents or guardian or a sex education teacher should give you the facts about sex that you must know.”
(. . .)
More specifically, BSA has set forth a number of rules for Scoutmasters when these types of issues come up:
(. . .)
“Rule number 1: You do not undertake to instruct Scouts, in any formalized manner, in the subject of sex and family life. The reasons are that it is not construed to be Scouting’s proper area, and that you are probably not well qualified to do this.” [emphasis in original]
(. . .)
Insofar as religious matters are concerned, BSA’s bylaws state that it is “absolutely nonsectarian in its attitude toward . . . religious training.” [and] “The BSA does not define what constitutes duty to God or the practice of religion. This is the responsibility of parents and religious leaders.” . . . BSA surely is aware that some religions do not teach that homosexuality is wrong.
After thoroughly examining the 1978, 1991, 1992, and 1993 written BSA policy statements regarding homosexuality, the dissenting Justices continued:
It speaks volumes about the credibility of BSA’s claim to a shared goal that homosexuality is incompatible with Scouting that since at least 1984 it had been aware of this issue — indeed, concerned enough to twice file amicus briefs before this Court—yet it did nothing in the intervening six years (or even in the years after Dale’s expulsion) to explain clearly and openly why the presence of homosexuals would affect its expressive activities, or to make the view of “morally straight” and “clean” taken in its 1991 and 1992 policies a part of the values actually instilled in Scouts through the Handbook, lessons, or otherwise.
(. . .)
In fact, until today, we have never once found a claimed right to associate in the selection of members to prevail in the face of a State’s antidiscrimination law. To the contrary, we have squarely held that a State’s antidiscrimination law does not violate a group’s right to associate simply because the law conflicts with that group’s exclusionary membership policy.
(. . .)
The evidence before this Court makes it exceptionally clear that BSA has, at most, simply adopted an exclusionary membership policy and has no shared goal of disapproving of homosexuality.
(. . .)
As noted earlier, nothing in our [previous] cases suggests that a group can prevail on a right to expressive association if it, effectively, speaks out of both sides of its mouth.
Emboldened by this Supreme Court decision, the National Executive Board of the BSA passed a formal resolution on 6 February 2002 that expressly excluded atheists and homosexuals from membership. Furthermore, the Executive Board resolved that all Councils and sponsoring organizations must sign a statement to the effect that they will enforce all policies of the BSA including the exclusion of homosexuals and atheists as members. All those applying for membership must also agree to abide by these policies.
The reason for the condemnation of homosexuality by the BSA, unusual among similar organizations in the United States, is clearly the close association between the BSA and certain religious constituencies, especially the Mormons and Catholics, as indicated in an amicus curiae filed by them in the Dale case. It begins:
Among all of Scouting’s supporters, there are none more important to Boy Scouts of America (“BSA”) than amici. The organizations joining in this brief are by far the largest religious sponsors of Scouting in America. Religious institutions charter over 60% of all Scouting units in the United States. Of these, a full two-thirds are chartered by amici. Nationally, amici sponsor over 50,000 Scouting units and almost 1.2 million scouts, with over 20,000 scouts in New Jersey alone.
For many decades amici have employed Scouting as a tool of religious ministry, making Scouting an integral part of their youth programs. The right of BSA and its sponsoring organizations to determine eligibility requirements for scout leaders is therefore of paramount importance, directly impacting the ability of these amici to organize and control their Scouting programs.
(. . .)
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints sponsors over 400,000 scouts and over 30,000 Scouting units nationwide, making it the largest single sponsor of Scouting units in the United States. In New Jersey, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints sponsors over 700 scouts and about 60 units.
After the above chest-thumping, under a section of the brief entitled “Coercing Boy Scouts of America to Install Openly Homosexual Scout Leaders Violates the First Amendment”, the Mormons state:
[Ruling against the BSA] threatens to fracture the Scouting Movement, destroying or at least severely diminishing BSA’s ability to advocate and inculcate its values. If the appointment of scout leaders cannot be limited to those who live and affirm the sexual standards of BSA and its religious sponsors, the Scouting Movement as now constituted will cease to exist. Amicus The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — the largest single sponsor of Scouting units in the United States — would withdraw from Scouting if it were compelled to accept openly homosexual scout leaders. The other amici would be forced to reevaluate their sponsorship of Scouting, with the serious possibility of reaching the same conclusion.
(. . .)
Given the extent of their support, losing any of these amici as sponsors, whether in New Jersey or nationwide, would seriously disrupt BSA’s ability to express and inculcate its message. The destruction or dismemberment of an expressive organization is perhaps the ultimate abridgment of the right of expressive association.
The Mormon threat in their brief is obviously coercive and also hypocritical — who, in fact, is coercing the BSA, the government or the Mormons? Also, the brief is deceptive because the chartering organization is (as it always has been) the one responsible to recruit and select their adult leaders — not BSA. Traditionally, if a Scouting unit in New Jersey decided to accept gay scouts, that would not compel a Mormon unit to do likewise. This tradition allows religiously-sponsored units to apply standards for membership and leadership appropriate to their own sect. What the Mormons want to do (and the BSA leadership is cooperating) is force Mormon standards for scouts and leaders on ALL other units nationwide.
After the Dale decision, public opinion in some communities turned against the BSA; corporations, charities, and even some local governments criticized the policy, threatening to either cut off financial support or block the Boy Scouts from using public buildings for their meetings. Going even further, the Secular Coalition for America has urged Congress to revoke the federal charter of the BSA, stating: “Our government must not entangle itself in religious organizations; nor should it establish, with government imprimatur, a private religious club.” Of course, while some segments of the public criticized the organization, other groups became more enthusiastic in their support of the Scouts.
Ironically, the BSA national leadership in the not-too-distant future will have to confront the fact that they are engaging in child abuse by following a policy of rejecting youth who identify as gay. The existence of BSA’s overt discrimination against gays sends the message to both youth and adults that it is okay to judge, ridicule, and hate another person — simply because they’re different. In the August 2001 issue of the American Journal of Public Health, researchers found boys with same-sex orientation were linked to a 68 percent greater likelihood of having suicidal thoughts than their opposite-sex oriented classmates. This study confirmed a Department of Health and Human Services Study (1989) which concluded that gay youth are often more likely to attempt suicide than others of their same age group. (See also Remafedi et al, 1998; Silenzio et al, 2007; Ryan et al, 2009.) Such suicidal tendencies do not reflect a pathology due to sexual orientation — rather, they result from societal stigmatization and oppression of those who are, or are perceived to be, homosexual.
Since its earliest days, the BSA has sought to maintain strong ties to church and state. However, in the United States legal system, these entities are largely kept separate, and for good historical reasons. Unfortunately, the BSA may not be able to cater to both much longer without inevitably running afoul of one or the other.
- Stephen T. Russell and Kara Joyner, “Adolescent sexual orientation and suicide risk: Evidence from a national study.” Am J Public Health (August 2001) 91: 1276-1281. DOI: 10.2105/AJPH.91.8.1276.
- G. Remafedi, S. French, M. Story, M. D. Resnick, and R. Blum,
“The relationship between suicide risk and sexual orientation: Results of a population-based study.” Am J Public Health (January 1998) 88: 57-60. DOI: 10.2105/AJPH.88.1.57.
- C. Ryan, D. Huebner, R. M. Diaz, and J. Sanchez, “Family rejection as a predictor of negative health outcomes in white and Latino lesbian, gay, and bisexual young adults.” Pediatrics (January 1, 2009) 123(1): 346 – 352. DOI: 10.1542/peds.2007-3524.
- Vincent M.B. Silenzio, Juan B. Pena, Paul R. Duberstein, Julie Cerel, and Kerry L. Knox. “Sexual orientation and risk factors for suicidal ideation and suicide attempts among adolescents and young adults.” Am J Public Health (November 2007) 97: 2017–2019. DOI: 10.2105/AJPH.2006.095943.