Boy Scouts Consider Opening Their Troops to Gays

Atheists wonder when it’ll be their turn.

The Boy Scouts of American (BSA) is considering lifting a ban on gay troop leaders and scouts as early as next week.

Bowing to pressure from such financial backers as UPS, Merck, and Intel—not to mention our growing societal acceptance of homosexuality—the BSA said it's considering lifting its centralized ban, thus giving power to local troops to decide whether to accept gays.

As The New York Times points out in an editorial this morning, that strategy is faint progress because it allows the discrimination to continue within the individual troops. Many social conservatives have already expressed outrage about the potential change, with Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association going so far as to equate the move with inviting pedophiles into the organization.

If only everyone with a soapbox to stand on could be as thoughtful as Teddy, the 15-year-old North Shore Scout who emailed me last night to say that lifting the ban is a non-issue to him. (I agreed to use just his first name to protect his privacy discussing a sensitive topic.) He wrote:

If there was a boy who wanted to join and he was gay, I would be perfectly fine with that. I would accept him for who he is and welcome him into our troop. I don't think it would change my Scouting experience at all, because I know that each and everyone of us has our differences.

He went on to say that removing the ban could even be a boon to the BSA, which has gained a negative reputation for its exclusion. “With the Scouts changing the policy,” he wrote, “this will allow them to gain more members.”

Unfortunately, there’s still one group deemed far too different to even be considered. Because of a rule that Scouts take an oath to God, atheists and agnostics need not apply. And while England's equivalent to the Boy Scouts recently lifted its ban on atheists, the BSA has made no mention of opening its doors to nonbelievers.

David Niose, president of the Secular Coalition of America and author of Nonbeliever Nation: The Rise of Secular Americans, says:

Correctly or not, many Americans see the Boy Scouts as quintessential young patriots embodying the ideal of American male youth. By defining patriotism in a way that excludes atheists, the BSA is fanning the flames of undeserved public prejudices toward atheists. There can be no doubt that nonbelievers contribute greatly to the common good in America—they are doctors, teachers, parents, scientists, and taxpayers—and there is no justification for excluding them.

The stigma against nonbelievers transcends organizations like the Boy Scouts, creating the kind of shame that long kept homosexuals in the proverbial closet. According to Niose, while only 2 to 3 percent of the American population identify as atheists or agnostics on the American Religious Identification Survey, 12.3% meet the definition of nonbelievers.

I interviewed Phil Zuckerman, professor of secular studies at Pitzer College in Claremont, California, and author of Faith No More: Why People Reject Religion, for my recent Boston magazine feature on raising kids without religion, and yesterday he emailed to say he hopes that secular Scouts may one day be a reality:

While atheists have never experienced the kind of hatred, vilification, marginalization, or ostracism that gays, blacks, and other minorities have in this country (partly because they could keep their atheism hidden fairly easily), numerous surveys and national polls show that atheists constitute the least-liked group in American society today….And yet this may be changing. 'Coming out' has been the single greatest strategy for homosexuals—it has brought them increasing respect and acceptance. It is possible that the same could happen for atheists and agnostics: If they came out to their friends, family, and colleagues, we will most likely see greater acceptance of secularity in the culture in the years ahead.

As the Boy Scouts consider opening their doors to such diversity, they may consider learning something from the girls. As David Niose cogently points out:

The Girl Scouts accommodate not only LGBT members, but also atheists.  If Girl Scouts don’t wish to take an oath that includes God-language, they can simply do a secular affirmation instead. Ironically, the President and members of Congress also have the option of affirming instead of taking an oath as well. Yet Boy Scouts can’t?

A great question and one the BSA should be discussing.