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PALAZZO: The Boy Scout debate

Changing policy or changing principles?

- - Monday, May 13, 2013

More than a century ago, a small group of civic leaders founded the Boy Scouts of America to teach young men leadership, character and American values. For more than 100 years, its traditions have stood strong. Yet in the last few years, these traditions have been under attack. Sadly, it seems the fight over the legacy and the future of Scouting has become less about Scouts and more about winning a culture war.

The fight against the Scouts started back in 2000, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Boy Scouts' decision to terminate a Scoutmaster that the group discovered was openly gay. Even though the Scoutmaster was aware he was at odds with official Scout policies, instead of accepting the group's decision, he chose to challenge those policies, sparking a long and costly legal battle and drawing the Scouts into the national spotlight. In the end, the Supreme Court upheld the Scouts' constitutional right as a private organization to exclude a person from membership.

Yet the movement to change Boy Scout policy didn't end there. Since the Supreme Court ruling, the group has survived multiple challenges from pro-gay rights and anti-religious groups. The most recent attacks prompted the organization's leadership to once again review its long-held stance on openly homosexual participation. The push for change largely comes from third-party groups with little or no vested interest in Scouting; whereas many interested in keeping faith with the current policy — faith-based groups and a variety of churches — make up more than 70 percent of troop charters. The values they uphold have made the Boy Scouts of America what it is today.

After sustained public outcry from local Scouting council leaders, the BSA's National Council postponed a policy change decision earlier this year. Less than a month later, a new compromise proposal has been put forth that appears to make no one happy. Those pushing the Scouts to embrace a homosexual-friendly stance still feel the need to fight for openly homosexual troop leaders. Faith-based groups are frustrated by the mixed message being sent that being gay is acceptable as a child, but not as an adult. Regardless of how you feel about the issue, the policy seems flawed.

As a former Boy Scout, it's been personally disheartening to stand by and watch this beloved American icon as it is pressured and attacked by those who have little or no stake in the organization or interest in its mission. Their actions raise the question: Who really cares about what is best for the Scouts? At a time when membership is already declining, will these kinds of changes make the 70 percent of faith-based and church-chartered groups feel more or less welcome in the organization? Do the changes support or undermine the mission to do one's duty to God and country? Is this more about changing Scouts' policy, or changing the Scouts altogether?

I've also been disheartened that some, though not all, of BSA leadership has tried to pass the buck on the issue by opting for the flawed compromise rather stand behind its current policy. With legal precedent on their side as a private organization, and such a large portion of faith-based charters, they certainly have sound arguments for doing so. While the BSA may hope that its middle-ground choice will put the issue to bed and momentarily take the organization out of the spotlight, I am afraid it only leaves the matter open for future battles.

It's hard to deny BSA's rich history of faith and values: it's written into the Boy Scout Oath, it's evident in faith-based membership charters, and it has thus far been written into BSA policies. Every Scout learns at his first troop meeting that he is to do his duty to God and his country. If others do not share those values, they are free to join or start another group. This upstanding organization has been such an inspiration to so many young men. It would a shame to allow it to be overtaken by a vocal minority that doesn't believe in those Boy Scouting values to begin with.

Many outside forces have made their position clear, and their voices heard in this debate. In turn, I would urge those who have had a vested interest in this organization and its values to continue to let their voices be heard as well. I am one of those voices. Later this month, I hope the voting members of the National Council will choose to hold to the same timeless principles the Boy Scouts have always embraced.

Rep. Steven M. Palazzo, Mississippi Republican, is a former Boy Scout. He serves on the House Armed Services, Homeland Security, and Science, Space and Technology committees.