As the Boy Scouts of America prepares for the 60th anniversary of the Pinewood Derby a month from today, a well-timed move is afoot in the California Legislature to strip tax-exempt status from Scouting and other nonprofit youth organizations that block gays and transsexuals from membership.
Both efforts reflect the push of tradition and the pull of social change that define Scouting today as its sponsoring members consider whether to allow openly gay boys and adult leaders into the ranks of an American institution that is under fire and in decline.
The question, whichever way it is decided when the organization's national council meets May 20 to discuss it, carries profound implications for Scouting's future as a molder of young boys pledged to be "physically strong, mentally awake and morally straight."
If the Boy Scouts holds to its exclusionary past by rejecting the resolution, it will have unwisely chosen a bleak future as a 103-year-old anachronism, beset by legal challenges and a rising tide of public support for same-sex equality that is contributing to steady erosion in the ranks of Scouts and corporate donors.
Even if, instead, the Boy Scouts adopts a policy permitting civic and religious groups to decide for themselves whether to welcome gay boys and adult leaders into the troops they sponsor, it will likely win only partial relief from its critics. Choosing a half-measure over a full one may or may not buy time the organization feels it needs for a gradual move to unqualified acceptance. Such a delay is in no way defensible. Fairness alone dictates otherwise.
Indeed, fairness to taxpayers is at the heart of legislation being considered in the California Senate, where a committee on Wednesday voted 5-2 to recommend abolishing exemptions from state income and sales taxes for youth groups that discriminate on the basis of gender identity, sexual orientation, race, nationality, religion or religious affiliation. Such groups would have to pay corporate taxes on membership dues and donations, and sales tax on food, drink and homemade crafts sold to raise money.
The bill's sponsor, Sen. Ricardo Lara, rightly observed that while "the Boy Scouts provide a critical service for our youth," taxpayers should not be forced into "paying for discrimination."
As it marks 60 years of derbies, the Boy Scouts of America should resolve that no boy will be barred from entering his painstakingly assembled creation in the 61st running of the event.