A good first step by the Boy Scouts on gays

Dare we hope that the Boy Scouts of America will finally end their nationwide exclusion of gays as Scouts or troop leaders?

An announcement from the BSA’s National Council on Monday suggests that it may allow local Scout troops to decide on their own if they want to welcome gay boys into membership. If approved, this would represent a dramatic reversal of national Scouting policy.

It would be a welcome change, and about time.

If the national council does reverse its position, the growing acceptance of alternate lifestyles – as evidenced in support for same-sex marriage and the ban on gays serving openly in the military – will have played a role.

But the Boy Scouts must do more. It must prove itself capable of protecting the children under its supervision.

There’s no doubt the release of 2,000 pages of shocking documents last fall, revealing a long history of sexual abuse and coverup within the Scouting organization, also influenced the BSA’s decision. The documents were made public not long after the Scouts’ national council had just reaffirmed its anti-gay policy.

Internal BSA documents, dating back to the 1920s and obtained through a court order, depicted the BSA as an organization infiltrated by pedophiles and unable to keep them away from young Scouts.

The documents also show that banning gay males from its organization didn’t end the abuse. As a result, thousands of young lives were altered forever.

The BSA National Council must have heard the groundswell of anger from parents, Scouts and Scout leaders and the general public. The many Eagle Scouts across America who returned their medals in disgust certainly made their voices clear.

Struggling to reverse declining membership numbers and facing increasing protests over the no-gays policy, the BSA’s position was clearly untenable. Changing social norms and competing activities for youth have made recruitment and retention of Scouts and Scout supporters harder to accomplish.

Two high-profile members of the Scouts’ national board – Ernst & Young CEO James Turley and AT&T Inc. CEO Randall Stephenson – began working from within to change the membership policy.

It would be understandable if the Boy Scouts’ governing body stopped short of issuing an organization-wide mandate to accept gays, allowing each troop to make a local determination. Such a half-step might satisfy its largest financial sponsors, many of whom are religious groups with strong beliefs on sexual orientation.

But to show that this once-venerable organization has truly learned from its mistakes, the BSA National Council must do more than tentatively open its doors to gays.

It must demonstrate that the Boy Scouts of America has shifted its focus from excluding some, to protecting all young boys who seek the rich benefits of its program.