As Boy Scouts of America mull over whether to allow gay members to openly join, their approach might mirror the leave-it-to-the-locals tack the organization once took in deciding how to tackle the issue of desegregating its Scout troops.
"The Boy Scouts would not, under any circumstances, dictate a position to units, members, or parents," Deron Smith, a spokesman for the Boy Scouts of America, said yesterday. "This would mean there would no longer be any national policy regarding sexual orientation, and the chartered organizations that oversee and deliver Scouting would accept membership and select leaders consistent with each organization's mission, principles, or religious beliefs."
Some local leaders said they stand by the BSA's decision.
"Local Scout councils agree to support whatever decision is made by our national board," Steve Wilburn, an official at the Old Hickory Council Council in North Carolina, told the Winston-Salem Journal.
But it's unclear how much the policy will result in changes for many troops. For much of the early 20th century, the Scouts' national leadership did not endorse segregation or discrimination but still gave wide discretion to councils to set their own racial policies. Unsurprisingly, many chapters — especially in the segregated South — opted not to admit black Scouts. Some troops imposed long waiting periods before letting blacks join, while others allowed black boys to join but prohibited them from wearing uniforms. (Boy Scout officials in Richmond, Va., once even threatened to stage a public burning of Scout uniforms if black boys were permitted to wear them.) And while the first black troop was formed in 1911, just a year after the Boy Scouts' founding, it wasn't until decades later that many troops eased their rules on segregation, and not until 1974 when the aforementioned Old Hickory council — one of the last segregated Boy Scout councils — finally integrated.
The local-level approach might not satisfy either supporters or opponents of the BSA's decision to drop anti-gay language from its policies. "It's a step in the right direction, and good to see that BSA is softening its position," said Zach Wahls, an advocate for gay rights. "But under the policy change, it will still be possible for some units to discriminate."
But Margaret Kreider, the mother of an Eagle Scout in Louisiana, said lifting the ban would put small troops who don't want to admit gays in an untenable position.
"It will be the small troops that decide they don't want to have a homosexual leader, and then where do they go for help?" she told The New York Times. "If they get sued by the ACLU or whatever organization decides to come after them, they won't have the resources or the backing of the Boy Scouts of America because of this policy. It will be the destruction of the Boy Scouts."