Boy Scouts, gays, and the company we keep 

"Prejudice is prejudice, regardless of how respectable its face. And it is an ugly, dangerous thing."

We are such a deeply divided nation. And while we occasionally make great strides – electing a black president, permitting openly gay Americans to serve in the military, passing laws permitting same-sex marriage – the divisions persist. And at times, they seem to be getting deeper.

NPR's Morning Edition on Tuesday included an interview with a Florida man who lost his job and is struggling to get by on unemployment checks. He is clearly bitter. He follows politics. He listens to Rush Limbaugh. And he blames President Obama for his misfortune. Obama, he told Morning Edition's Steve Inskeep, believes white people are evil, "and so does his wife."

Feeding this kind of mistrust, this gut-deep dislike, are people like Limbaugh and, yes, politicians of both major political parties.

But also, troublingly, the Boy Scouts of America, which earlier this summer, after two years of study, reaffirmed its position barring gay people from membership or adult service. No Boy Scouts. No troop leaders. No den mothers.

When I ranted about the Scouts' decision in a blog recently, several readers ranted back. "You miss the point that it is a PRIVATE organization," wrote one, "and as such has the right to set its rules."

Private organizations do indeed have the right to decide who can be a member. That doesn't make it right when it's blatant, harmful discrimination, and the Scouts' action is exactly that. Prejudice against gays and lesbians has had terrible consequences: discriminatory employment practices, bullying, injury, and, tragically, both murder and suicide.

For the Scouts to continue to ban gays and lesbians from membership and service is to ostracize an entire group of boys, men, and women – ostracizing them because the Scout leadership believes there's something wrong with them. And with that ostracizing, Boy Scouts USA tells gay children that they are inferior, not worthy of belonging. This is not harmless.

The Scouts organization – which has a strong presence in many communities (and benefits from both tax-exempt status and donations) – should be a leader, a model. Instead, it has chosen to be openly prejudiced, encouraging some children and adults to look down on others.

The Scouts' decision has prompted some Scouts to turn in their merit badges. My e-mail last week brought a letter from a reader who has found his own means of protest: Gates resident Jim Maher, a retired Air Force master sergeant, resigned from the American Legion. He has been a member for more than 20 years and has been historian of Post 367 in Scottsville, but the Legion is a major supporter of the Scouts, sponsoring some 2500 dens, troops, and other US Scout units.

Continuing to participate in the Legion, Maher wrote, would make him a hypocrite. "I can no longer stand proudly and recite the Pledge of Allegiance," he wrote, "knowing that the Legion and the main youth organization that it supports (the Boy Scouts of America) deny justice to all."

Maher cites the Scout oath, which includes a promise "to help other people at all times." And he notes that with its anti-gay policy, the Scouts have put their organization in the company of a host of bigoted organizations – including one of the worst of them all, the Westboro Baptist Church of Kansas, whose members picket the funerals of service members holding "God hates fags" signs.

That's a harsh condemnation, but Maher's right.

I'm sure the Scouts' leadership would insist that it abhors the Westboro members' actions, that it is simply responding to concerns of many Scouts and Scouting families. Unfortunately, the result is the same. Prejudice is prejudice, regardless of how respectable its face. It is an ugly, dangerous thing. And when we embrace it, we foster it.

The Boy Scouts are devoted to serving and nurturing children. For them to embrace prejudice against children, to foster doing harm to children, is a sad thing indeed.


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