The Boy Scouts of America’s Bigotry

This is my sermon from Friday night at Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Fountain Valley, CA. I should have said this a while ago.

“Please accept my resignation. I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept people like me as a member.” Groucho Marx famously opined this in response to being inducted in the Friar’s Club. This week when the Boy Scouts of America affirmed their policy that gay scouts and gay adult leaders were not welcome in the Boy Scouts, Groucho’s words ran through my head.

What do we do about the troubling issue of the Boy Scouts of America and their rejection of all gay people? The BSA is synonymous with the best of our youth. Boy Scouts tie knots, earn badges, help old ladies across the street, and are generally known for helping people as in the retort, “What are you, some kind of boy scout?”[1]

Since their founding in 1910, the Boy Scouts have long been heavily influence by Christianity. Today the Mormons are the largest financial backer of the BSA. Although the troops are not religiously run, the organization encourages religious observance and study including faith based pins and badges and scout sabbaths. The Scout Law requires scouts to be, among other things, trustworthy, loyal, brave, and reverent. [2] Such religious influence has meant that atheists and agnostics have not been welcome as scouts since their founding saying “The Boy Scouts of America maintains that no member can grow into the best kind of citizen without recognizing an obligation to God.”[3]

A traditional religious undertone of scouting and their backers makes anti-gay policies a natural outcome. As gay rights became a greater national issue, the BSA found itself clarifying its position. In 1991, they shared, “We believe that homosexual conduct is inconsistent with the requirement 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.”[4] Law suits followed and in 2000 the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, declared that as a private organization the Boy Scouts had the right to determine their own criteria for membership.

Now 12 years later, the BSA has reaffirmed their position. They declared a form of “don’t ask, don’t tell” to their scout leaders and teenage scouts. They declared sexual orientation a “distraction to the mission of the BSA” and that scouting should be free of all discussion of “same-sex attraction.”[5] Three days ago, an 11-person committee, after two years of private study, officially endorsed that stance.

The Boy Scouts represent nearly 3 million boys at any one time. As a Jewish community, we value that each of us were created in God’s image and we work for equality for the GLBT community in our family, friends, congregation, and in the world. Our opposition to the position of the Boy Scouts would seem obvious. The Reform Movement, in response to the recent BSA affirmation, stated their disappointment and the negative messages such actions bring.

“In our youth groups and at our synagogues, at our summer camps and at our Sunday schools, we have found that, like all children, LGBT children seek acceptance, a sense of belonging, and positive role models. The Boy Scouts’ decision sends the opposite message, one of exclusion, telling boys that being gay or bisexual means they are unacceptable.”[6]

We wish the BSA was more like the Girl Scouts. Not simply because we want more cookies, but for their open tolerance. Listen to their official discrimination policy: “Girl Scouts of the USA and its local councils and troops value diversity and inclusiveness and do not discriminate or recruit on the basis of race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, national origin, or physical or developmental disability.”[7]

But our frustration at yet another homophobic organization is only part of our response. Because among us are present and past Boy Scouts and Scout Leaders. I have worked with Scouts on the Ner Tamid and Etz Chaim emblems and on Eagle Scout projects and led Scout Shabbats. Synagogues often sponsor troops. The Boy Scouts do good things for our kids and cannot be dismissed easily. So what do we do?

I have been struggling with that issue since the Supreme Court decision in 2000. At the time, I worked at a large synagogue in Dallas that had sponsored a troop since 1919. As a synagogue, we could not condone a troop that discriminated against gay teens or adults. As a troop, any challenge by them to the national BSA office, which was only 1 town away in Irving, Texas, would likely result in the whole troop being disbanded. For several years, we explored a variety of options wringing our hands in frustration over how to both assert our belief in equality and to allow a troop, whose leaders and scouts were not anti-gay, to continue to function. We found little room to wiggle.

We recognized immediately that Boy Scouts have the right to determine their membership. While amendments to the Constitution puts limits on who you can and can’t include, you are allowed to define your own membership. Take another private organization: Congregation B’nai Tzedek. As a Temple we restrict membership to families that have a Jewish member. Our youth group is only for teens. Our Sisterhood and Brotherhood are gender based. While sexual orientation may not seem to most of us as an appropriate discriminating factor, it is completely within the BSA’s rights.

So the obvious solution is to cut ties with Boy Scouts. If their behavior is offensive to us, we shouldn’t be part of it. In 1992, NFTY, the Reform Movement Youth groups, did just that – they urged a complete withdrawal from the BSA. In 2001, following the Supreme Court decision, the Reform Movement also advocated for synagogue to stop sponsoring troops and individuals from participating.[8]

When we boycott an organization or product it can serve two purposes. First, it prevents us from supporting groups with our money or our time and therefore supporting issues and behaviors we oppose. After the Exxon Valdez oil spill, I stopped going to Exxon gas stations to oppose their devastation on the environment. My boycott has resulted in Exxon being the most profitable company in the world last year. And that’s the second factor. Boycotts sometimes change the organization, but numbers do matter.

Withdrawing from the BSA would serve the purpose of removing our own distaste. Yesterday Martin Cizmar, a Portland man and a former Eagle Scout, sent a moving letter to the BSA returning his cherished Eagle Scout badge from 1998. He wrote, “I am not gay. However, I cannot in good conscious hold this badge as long as the BSA continues a policy of bigotry. Though I didn’t know at the time, I was acquainted with a number of gay scouts and scouters. They were all great men, loyal to the scout oath and motto and helpful to the movement. There is no fair reason they should not be allowed to participate in scouting….A national policy on sexuality forces good, principled people from scouting. I can only hope that someone inside the BSA has the courage to fix this policy before the organization withers into irrelevance.”[9] While Martin’s words won’t change the BSA’s position, it is a powerful stand against injustice and bigotry.

If don’t remove ourselves from the BSA then our other option is to work from within. For this, we have to be able to compartmentalize our disgust – live with good parts of something while avoiding, working to change, or ignoring other parts?

We do that sort of partitioning throughout our lives. We live and work with people and groups that are mixed bags, but we somehow find a way to adapt. It might be our cousin who tells racist jokes, but otherwise is a good guy. Or the job we dread, but we like the paychecks and our co-workers. Or our teenager who right now hates everything about us and drives us crazy, but we still love.

It might be our Torah – filled with the most transcendent passages, and yet also ones of violence and sexism, like the minimizing of a woman’s independence in this week’s portion.[10] We love Israel, but are vexed by her treatment of Reform and Conservative Jews. We love America, but don’t always agree with her leaders and her actions.

Working from within means biting your lip. It means you either truly believe change will come, or you really aren’t bothered enough by the darker side of the organization to be moved to more drastic action. Change is very hard.

In Dallas, we decided to work from within. We created a synagogue-wide non-discrimination statement that included sexual orientation. The boy scout troop, sponsored by the Temple, had to accept that statement to continue to receive funding. They did and I checked earlier today, it is still on their web site. This allowed everyone to feel they had done something positive. The troop continued on. The Temple wasn’t sponsoring a bigoted group. The BSA in Irving didn’t notice.

I have wondered if the BSA had been able to exclude black scouts or Jewish scouts if general society would have responded differently. But discrimination against atheists and against gays are not of the importance yet among most people that racism and religious bigotry hold. Time changes what we can stomach.

Removing yourself from an organization in protest or working from within, we have options on how to respond. But either way: respond we must. We must not let the messages of intolerance and exclusion continue to batter our gay teens and adults. Society changes. We are agents of that change.

Having worked with Scouts throughout my rabbinic career, including some truly amazing Eagle Scout projects that were part of Temple life, I think it is personally time for me to reconsider my tolerance. The BSA isn’t changing any time soon. And I have not been an agent of change from within. While an individual scout and even their entire troop my be free from bigotry, they are still directly associated with a homophobic organization. How can I work with the BSA when they would not let me be a member were I a teen? How can I be a rabbi at a boy scout event when they wouldn’t let me be there as a volunteer troop leader? I represent a role model to any boy scout who can see that being gay doesn’t mean being a predator or a weirdo, but a respected adult of faith and morality. However, I don’t think I can put aside my disgust for the national organization’s bigotry anymore even as that stops me from working with some amazing individual scouts and troops. It is time for me to stop working from within and more openly protest the hateful positions of the Boy Scouts of America.

ScoutingForAll.org suggests otherwise. They think that we shouldn’t leave scouting – not as a scout, a parent, a leader, or perhaps even as clergy. The more people in the organization, they say, that stand up against discrimination, the stronger and better scouting will become. That may be more right for you.

However you may interface with scouting, our obligation today is promote equality and justice. Working from within or outside, we must encourage our kids – and more often for teens today to teach their parents and grandparents – about being b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God. We must openly speak out against the Boy Scouts of America’s cruel and unacceptable membership. As a congregation and society that reaches towards positive acceptance and away from division and intolerance, we can overcome the BSA or any group’s bigotry together.

PS Post Sermon Note: Among the many things you can do – sign some petitions like this one by Zach Wahls


Thanks to Aaron Brummer and Rabbi Rebecca Schorr for some excellent insights in preparing this.

[1] When I wrote this quote down, I didn’t realize that it has actually been used, word for word, in a movie. Know which one? The answer is here.

[9] Huffington Post, Martin Cizmar, Former Eagle Scout, Returns Badge To Boy Scouts In Anti-Gay Policy Protest, July 20, 2012. Includes photo Cizmar uploaded to Facebook of his letter to the BSA and his Eagle Scout badge.

[10] We had read Numbers 30:2-5.

5 comments on “The Boy Scouts of America’s Bigotry

  1. Yasher koach, Rabbi.

  2. A post from Rabbi Rebecca Schorr’s blog “This Messy Life” – http://rebeccaeinsteinschorr.com/?p=351

  3. […] the article here: The Boy Scouts of America's Bigotry « RaMaKblog Tweet Total: 0 ViewsPost Published: Saturday, July 21st, 2012Published by: […]

  4. Wendy Kielmeier says:

    i came away from your sermon last week with such joy. You really stated something important and put yourself out there for everyone to see. Good for you! I applaud you!

  5. […] someone who declared I will not work with the BSA as long as it is a haven for intolerance, should I work with a tolerant troop within that organization? I am not working with individual […]

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