This week 40,000 Scouts will flock to Fort A.P. Hill in Virginia for the National Scout Jamboree. This year a drama smolders: will Barack Obama, the Honorary President of the Boy Scouts of America, make an appearance? Most Presidents (but not all) visit the Jamboree to give Scouting a boost. This year’s celebration has special significance: it is the 100th Anniversary of the Boy Scouts. If Obama doesn’t attend it will be a clear sign that the Boy Scouts have problems.
For eighty years supporting the Boy Scouts was a political no-brainer. Elected officials from both sides of the aisle embraced the Scouts. It was easy: the values of the Boy Scouts lined up exactly with the values and aspirations of mainstream America. But over the last ten years, things have changed.
The core of the problem is the Boy Scout policy that bars gays and atheists from leadership. In 2000 this issue came to a head at the Supreme Court in Boy Scouts of America et al. v. Dale. Assistant Scoutmaster James Dale was expelled from Scouting when it was made public that he was gay. The Boy Scouts won the case and affirmed their right to discriminate against gays as a private organization. The problem is that the Boy Scouts is not an ordinary private organization.
The Boy Scouts of America is technically private but–like the Red Cross, Fannie Mae and the United States Olympic Committee–it was granted a Charter by Congress. With Barack Obama as Honorary President and backed up by a Congressional Charter the Boy Scouts of America enjoys a special status in our society. The Charter is also the basis of a muscular intellectual property approach used to “protect the brand.” The Boy Scouts of America have registered dozens of exclusive trademarks including “Be Prepared,” “Scoutmaster,” “Merit Badge,” and “Scouting.” Unlike France and Germany, which have a variety of Scouting programs with different membership rules, there is only one brand of Boy Scout in America.
This means that the Boy Scouts have it both ways. They enjoy a government-sponsored monopoly and, like a private club, they get to discriminate against gays and atheists. No wonder Barack Obama is taking his time to decide whether he wants to attend their 100th Birthday Jamboree.
Sooner or later the Boy Scouts of America will need to make a decision. It can follow the lead of the US military (lead by Distinguished Eagle Scout Robert Gates) and change the discriminatory policies. Or it can cut ties to our government, retreat into a niche and recognize that their values no longer represent all of us.
Eagle Scout & producer/co-director
759: Boy Scouts of Harlem
justin (at) harlemscouts.com