If the Boy Scouts of America goes ahead this week and allows openly gay leaders and boys into its fold, it will be only a half-step toward full equality, and may not be enough to placate disaffected donors and parents, or stem the shrinkage in the ranks of the 103-year-old organization.
Adopting a policy permitting civic and religious groups to decide for themselves whether to welcome gay boys and adult leaders into the troops they sponsor would be a seismic shift that not long ago would have been judged heretical. Should the BSA national board proceed, it should be counted as progress welcome, if belated.
But let us be clear. This policy would fall grievously short of the unqualified acceptance that simple fairness dictates and that the Boy Scouts will eventually be compelled to grant. That is, if the BSA, with its roots planted in the 20th century, hopes to remain viable in the 21st.
Sadly, the policy under discussion amounts to grudging acceptance in the face of intense pressure, not unlike the military's half-step toward equality for gays and lesbians. The policy of "don't ask, don't tell," billed as a bridge to full equality, served for 18 wasted years to prolong the institutional homophobia it supposedly was aimed at addressing.
The Boy Scouts, like the military, steadfastly resisted change. The American mainstream, meanwhile, was moving toward broad acceptance of economic rights for same-sex couples and slim majority support for gay marriage and adoption. At the same time, businesses, schools and civic organizations were adopting strict prohibitions against discrimination based on sexual orientation. A number have been pressuring the BSA by withholding well over $1 million in donations.
Little more than a decade ago, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was prepared to withdraw from Scouting if the U.S. Supreme Court forced the BSA to admit gay men as scoutmasters. The court chose not to, and the BSA's chief sponsor stayed put.
But times have changed, and this week, the LDS Church may sign off on the policy change, a decision that would reflect the faith's recent outreach to gay members, who now can serve openly in church positions if they are chaste. There is no exception for Scouting.
A recent national poll showed a slim majority continues to believe that openly gay adults should not be troop leaders. But the trend is toward acceptance, and pressure on the BSA should continue until it abandons half measures and embraces the new norm.