The Boy Scouts of America may be headed for a historic moment on Thursday. Some 1,400 members from around the country are gathering in Grapevine, Texas, just outside of Dallas, to cast votes on whether to allow openly gay scouts.
But even as the largest youth group in the nation, founded 103 years ago, ponders whether to change a policy that some see as an anachronism in a society that is increasingly accepting of homosexuality, the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) continues to face criticism from both sides.
The proposal to include gays does not include scout leaders. Those who support a more open policy say the proposal does not go far enough, while opponents say the change could ruin a national youth institution by putting too much emphasis on sexuality.
Whichever way the ballots go on Thursday, most observers say the iconic boys' organization is at a crossroads.
The Boy Scouts risk becoming an irrelevant organization, says Robert Volk, director of the Legal Writing and Appellate Advocacy Program at Boston University's School of Law. Public opinion is changing, he says, and the BSA needs to keep pace.
"Witness the upsurge in support for same sex marriage," he says via e-mail. The BSA risks becoming "the refuge of a fringe," he adds.
This issue puts the BSA in the crosshairs of history, agrees fellow BU scholar and law professor Linda McClain.
The BSA not only is the country's largest youth organization, but it is also the only organization to enjoy a Congressional Charter, she notes.
"It has a special status in the nation's history," she says via e- mail. The exclusion of gay scouts and leaders, on grounds that homosexuality conflicts with the Scouts' fundamental values of being "morally straight" and "clean" - which the US Supreme Court upheld in BSA v. Dale in 2000 - "seems in tension with its history of stressing that it is an inclusive, nonsectarian organization, open to boys of all creeds, races, and classes," she adds.
In a 2012 USA Today/Gallup national poll, however, fewer than half the respondents said they supported openly gay scout leaders, a view reflected by a coalition of church leaders who filed a petition in anticipation of the May 23 vote. The appeal opposes the policy change. Those signing the petition include representatives of churches with more than 20 million members, including the Southern Baptist Convention, Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, and the Anglican Church in North America, as well as theologians such as Southern Baptist Albert Mohler, United Methodist Thomas Oden, and Presbyterian Luder Whitlock. …