When Boy Scouts of America announced this past summer that it was reaffirming its policy banning participation by gays and lesbians, it caught a lot of parents by surprise.
I was one of those parents. My seven-year-old, Joshua, had just spent a wonderful year as a Cub Scout, a year filled with a firehouse tour, family scrapbooking, bike repair, nature walks, winter camping with my husband, and other memorable activities. I knew when I’d signed him up for Cub Scouts that their national organization, Boy Scouts of America, had a reputation for being homophobic, but there was no evidence of that in my progressive little community, and it never occurred to me that it was actually written into the B.S.A.’s by-laws.
But there it was: “While the B.S.A. does not proactively inquire about the sexual orientation of employees, volunteers or members, we do not grant membership to individuals who are open or avowed homosexuals or who engage in behavior that would become a distraction to the mission of the B.S.A.”
This was especially surprising to me because Girl Scouts, to which my daughter has belonged for years, has a policy of inclusiveness, stated in an official blog post this July: “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.”
The Boy Scouts’ policy, which B.S.A. officials said was the result of an internal, two-year study, touched off a storm of protest. There have been online petitions and letter-writing campaigns from within and outside the scouting world. One petition, on behalf of a high school senior who was denied his Eagle Scout award after coming out as gay, drew more than 400,000 supporters, including numerous Eagle Scouts who said the boy could have their award.
In my community, the response was divided. At least seven families and three leaders left scouting. But many parents opted to continue their involvement, believing that the value of the program outweighed a bad policy. Not me. As a Jew, a descendant of a people that has endured so much hatred and discrimination, it just felt wrong. Even though no one intended to enforce the policy locally, a percentage of every scout’s membership dues and proceeds from purchases of Cub Scout supplies go to the national offices of Boy Scouts of America. The organization’s name is embroidered on my son’s uniform. What if it had been some other group that was being excluded, like Jews or Christians or Muslims or Hindus? Would families still be willing to look the other way?
This policy of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is clearly a troubling social justice issue for Jewish scouting groups to consider, but they have a long history invested with the Boy Scouts of America. The first Jewish Boy Scout troop was founded in 1913 at the 92nd Street Y in New York City. By 1957, there were 1,367 troops chartered to Jewish religious and fraternal organizations, according to the National Jewish Committee on Scouting, an advisory committee to the B.S.A. As of last year, there were roughly 160 Jewish-affiliated Cub Scout/Boy Scout/Venturing groups serving nearly 4,000 boys, and those numbers have remained fairly stable in recent years, according to the B.S.A.
Dr. Marc Kramer, Executive Director of RAVSAK, a network of Jewish community day schools, has fond memories of his days as a Cub Scout, but he would not encourage a Jewish school to sponsor a scout group, nor would he enroll his son in one. “We, as a Jewish community, have a history of standing up when there’s a gap between what’s legal and what’s right,” said Kramer, a gay parent of three children. Schools and other organizations that sponsor scouting activities should match their actions with their values, he explained. “If the Boy Scouts were to make a policy that they were allowed to exclude folks with disabilities there would be no school, church or synagogue in America that would continue to align itself with the Boy Scouts.”
Though some Jewish organizations and rabbis have continued their involvement with scouting, others have not. In New Orleans, the Boy Scouts run an annual fall event called The Ten Commandments Walk, during which scouts spend a day visiting 10 different religious institutions, including a several synagogues that have participated for years. This year, in response to the B.S.A.’s re-affirmation of its anti-gay policy, most synagogues and Jewish organizations in New Orleans declined to host the scouts, said Alexis Berk, rabbi at Touro Synagogue, a longtime participant in the program. Just as we teach our children about the civil rights struggles of the ‘60s, Berk believes our children will one day teach their children about the gay rights movement. “I want to be on the right side of this,” she said. “[The B.S.A’s policy] is pure bigotry.”
This isn’t the first time this issue has been in the spotlight. In 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the B.S.A.’s right as a private organization to exclude gays and lesbians, sparking a wave of protests, including many by Jewish organizations that sponsor scouting groups. One of those was Congregation Emanu El in Houston. Uncomfortable with the policy, the temple board considered disbanding their boy scouting program, but decided instead to send a letter to officials at Boys Scouts of America letting them know the temple disagreed with the policy and didn’t intend to enforce it. “We never heard back, so we felt we were on record that this is what we were doing,” said Lisa Stone, a founder of the temple’s Boy Scout program. To further promote its opposition to the policy, her troop also ran a workshop at that time for scouts and their families focusing on discrimination against gays and lesbians, particularly in scouting. The troop has continued to ignore the B.S.A.’s policy, she said.
Stone, who now serves as chair of the Houston Jewish Scouting Committee, encourages scouting families to send letters and petitions protesting the policy. Like many others involved in scouting, she believes the policy will eventually be dropped.
I’m hoping that happens soon enough for my son to return to scouting. Meanwhile, I pondered for days last fall how to explain to Joshua that he wasn’t going to be a Cub Scout anymore. It turned out to be much easier than I thought. As we drove past a scouting recruitment sign one afternoon, Joshua asked whether he would be returning to Cub Scouts this year. I started to explain why he wasn’t, but he interrupted and said his friends Michael and Alexander weren’t going back either. I asked him if he knew why.
“Well,” he said, “Cub Scouts is saying that some people can’t join which isn’t fair to them.” He never even asked which people couldn’t join. I like to think it’s because he knows it doesn’t matter.
Heidi Gralla lives in Hastings-on-Hudson, NY, with her husband and three children.