The decision by the Boy Scouts of America to allow openly gay boys to join in the pursuit of merit badges just like any other boy is a giant step forward for an organization that has struggled to remain viable in a society less willing to tolerate discrimination based on sexual orientation.
Though commendable, as it undoubtedly is, Thursday's decision by roughly 1,400 voting members of the BSA's national council to adopt the proposal of the governing executive committee is only a partial victory for equality within the ranks.
By continuing, without discussion, to bar openly gay adults and leaders, the BSA is clinging to an institutional bigotry that was considered acceptable when the first scouts learned about campfire safety but is increasingly untenable today. This was a missed chance to halt the erosion in membership and financial support that are robbing Scouting of the relevance it once enjoyed as a molder of young boys pledged to be "physically strong, mentally awake and morally straight."
That said, we would do well to remember that Scouting is made up of its sponsoring members, mostly civic groups and churches. Many of them have been bitter opponents of any policy change and some say they are making plans to drop out of the organization.
It can be argued that the BSA leadership, well aware of the need for reform, took Scouting as far as a majority of its membership had indicated it was willing to go, at least for now. It is not clear whether the LDS Church, Scouting's chief sponsor and backer of the new policy, sees the future in those terms.
In any case, the push of tradition and the pull of social change largely define Scouting today as an institution that, like so many before it, is struggling mightily to establish a foothold in the 21st century. But, under fire from corporate donors, threatened with lawsuits and targeted by legislation aimed at stripping Scouting of its tax exemptions, the BSA is finding the going slippery.
Things will undoubtedly become slippier still. A major consequence of Thursday's vote was to bring into sharp relief the BSA's ignorant notion that gay men are poor role models and prone to pedophilia. Just as hurtful is the message the new policy sends to all Scouts: Gay boys may be welcome as scouts today, but will, precisely because they are gay, be unwelcome as men.
That twisted logic alone identifies the BSA as an anachronistic outlier in need of further reform.