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The Boy Scouts' Mixed Message on Gay Rights

By Kirsten Salyer
January 29, 2013 12:58 PM EST

Don't give the Boy Scouts of America that merit badge just yet.

After years of backlash about its discriminatory policy, the organization said Monday it is finally considering eliminating a ban on gay Scouts and Scout leaders. This is the same group that 13 years ago went to the Supreme Court -- and won -- to defend its right to refuse gay members, and that reaffirmed its policy less than a year ago.

Eliminating the ban would certainly be a step forward for gay rights. But it wouldn't be a decisive victory. Changing the rules at headquarters would punt the decision to local chapters, which would be responsible for deciding whether to accept gay members.

Both opponents and supporters of the Scouts' current policy make moral arguments. The conservative Family Research Council, for example, has urged the Boy Scouts to "stay strong," saying a change in its policy "would be devastating to an organization that has prided itself on the development of character in boys." Meanwhile, pressure for change has long been growing from within, including from hundreds of scouts who have returned their Eagle Scout pins as "a demonstration of your resolve against the Boy Scouts of America’s discriminatory policies."

Perhaps more urgently, this is a question of business. The United Parcel Service Inc., United Way, Merck Company Foundation and Intel Foundation have announced plans to cut funding for Boy Scouts in the last six months. More than 70,000 people have signed a petition encouraging Verizon Communications Inc., which gave more than $300,000 to the organization in 2009, to do the same.

Then there are the forces of culture. The upcoming reality show “Are You Tougher Than a Boy Scout?,” on the National Geographic Channel, has received heat from gay-rights activists petitioning for the show to inform viewers about the anti-gay policy.

Eliminating the national ban would allow Boy Scouts to satisfy the concerns of corporate sponsors without necessarily guaranteeing change on the local level. It doesn't seem right to celebrate this as monumental progress for an organization that has been teaching America's boys to "be prepared" for the past 100 years.

(Kirsten Salyer is social media editor for Bloomberg View. Follow her on Twitter.)

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