Rick Holmes: Eagle Scouts rise in protest

Rick Holmes

A summer storm and an anniversary brought my thoughts back to Scout camp last weekend.

I spent some of the best summers of my youth at the camp in the hills of western Massachusetts, and a hot weekend had me thinking of the cool mountain lake where we swam. A sudden driving rain at the end of a steamy hot afternoon often reminds me of the scent of wet canvas tents.

It was the 50th anniversary of Marilyn Monroe’s death, and it was at Boy Scout camp, I recalled, where I first heard the news. I remember one of the older Scouts calling on us, in mock solemnity, to hold “a moment of silence for Marilyn.”

These memories returned as I rooted through my attic, looking for my old Eagle Scout medal, the crowning achievement of any Scout’s life. I’m sending it back, as a small protest against the decision by the Boy Scouts of America to exclude gay teens and adults from its ranks.

That decision, reiterated in July after a secret committee of Scout execs completed a two-year study, has inspired Eagle Scouts across the country to return their hard-earned awards.

“Excluding people, based on race, physical ability or sexual orientation are not the values I was taught as a Boy Scout, nor are they my values today,” Ted Carvalho of Stow wrote the BSA, asking his name be removed from the list of recipients of the organization’s highest rank. He earned his Eagle in 1953. The certificate was signed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Jim Andrews of Waltham, Mass., echoed the sentiment in a letter to the editor, writing that following his own “moral compass” required he separate from the organization. President Bill Clinton signed his Eagle certificate. President Richard Nixon signed mine.

The U.S. president has always served as honorary president of the BSA, a century-old arrangement that shows the special relationship this private organization has with the federal government. It reflects the respect Scouts have always had for the country, its government, its history and its values.

As I remember it, our moment of silence for Marilyn came at flag-raising.  Every morning at camp, we saluted the flag, recited the pledge, and watched the flag hoisted up a flagpole as a bugler played. At night, we saluted as it was lowered and carefully folded. We learned the proper way to fold the flag, and to never let it touch the ground.

In Scouts, the love of country transcends politics. At least it did back then.

We learned to respect the Constitution as well. Most of us turning in our Eagle awards agree that the Supreme Court was legally correct when it ruled in 2000 that the BSA, like any voluntary association, had the Constitutional right to fire a scoutmaster because of his homosexuality.

We didn’t like the fact that the fundamental freedom the BSA went to that length to defend was the right to discriminate. To us, the "morally straight" path would be to welcome all boys on to Scouting's trail.

We learned values in Scouting without knowing they were being taught. Fairness was built into every game, positive messages woven into the songs we sang, the laws we recited.  There’s a lot to be said for repeating regularly a promise to be “trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent.”

I learned practical lessons I’ve had little use for, like how to lash together a lean-to or splint a broken arm. I learned skills I use all the time: The importance of serving the community, how to run a meeting, how organize a group task, making sure everyone is included, every contribution welcomed.

The Scouts’ attitude toward religion was as free from rancor as its patriotism was free from politics.  I remember studying the array of “God and Country” awards Scouts could achieve, tailored to every religion in the world: Catholics and Protestants, Jews and Jains, Hindus and Muslims and Buddhists. Each had its own badge.

But there’s no badge for atheists, and in the last 20 years the BSA has resisted the call to accommodate Scouts and adult leaders who want no part of organized religion.

When it comes to the BSA’s national leadership, some churches are more equal than others. Its strongest affiliations are with the Catholic church, the Mormons and the Southern Baptists, all of which support the ban on gay Scouts.

Sexuality wasn’t discussed in the Scout program when I was a kid, and it isn’t now.  They don’t preach about it at their meetings, and officially have a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy toward Scouts and volunteers.

They could have used more candor on the subject back then.

The camp I worked at was run by a neighbor of mine, a crew-cut, straight arrow leader. He gave me my first job, teaching swimming and boating.  I saw him the other day, 40 years older and looking every day of it – glowering from a website listing registered sex offenders in Florida.  I understand it was quite a scandal for the local Scouts council the first time he was arrested.

He never laid a hand on me or my brothers, near as we can remember, but the list of victims of child sex abuse in the BSA is likely at least as long as that of the Catholic church.  The L.A. Times reported this month on its review of more than 1,200 of the BSA’s  “perversion files” dating from 1970 to 1991. In at least 125 of the cases, sex offenders known to the national BSA managed to find their way back into Scouting.

For decades, the BSA has fought off, and settled, lawsuits by victims of child abuse, and they have refused to make the names of abusers public. They are about to lose part of that battle, with more than 1,000 files soon to be made public under an Oregon Supreme Court ruling. The BSA has lately made a habit of turning to the courts to defend the indefensible.

To its credit, the organization has tightened its policies to make sure every Scout is safe. By the time my son went to Scout camp there was a strict prohibition against an adult volunteer being alone with a single Scout.  The buddy system got a new meaning: If an adult had to take a Scout to the infirmary, another Scout had to go along for protection.

But pedophilia has nothing to do with being gay, as the leaders of other youth service organizations understand. The Girl Scouts, the YMCA, Campfire Girls and Boys and Girls Clubs don’t discriminate against gay kids.

 Like the Scouts, their mission is to help children grown into healthy, caring, confident adults.  The tragedy in this policy is the damage it does to kids questioning their sexual identity. They have it tough enough without being told they are unworthy to wear the Scout uniform.

I don’t know if sending back our Eagle medals will have any impact on the men who run the national Boy Scout organization. They are a pretty conservative bunch.

An old friend from my Scouting days made a career or it, eventually working at national headquarters. He thought a change in tone happened after the BSA moved its headquarters from New Brunswick, NJ, to the Dallas suburbs, a hotbed of religious conservatism.

But Scouting is in trouble, and getting caught up in the culture wars hasn’t helped.  The camp that was packed all summer when I was young has teetered on the brink of bankruptcy in recent years.  It’s open just two weeks this summer, staffed entirely by volunteers.

Scout camps across the country have been turned into parks or sold for subdivisions. Membership is in a long-term decline. Young people today are far more supportive of gay inclusion than their grandfathers, and hostility toward gay Scouts and leaders makes the group seem even more old-fashioned and irrelevant to their potential recruits.

This policy decision leaves the organization isolated politically.  Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, the two men vying to be the next honorary president of the Boy Scouts, both issued statements this week politely disagreeing with the policy that excludes homosexuals.  Several members of the BSA board disagree with it as well, including the incoming chairman.

Sooner or later, the policy will be reversed. Even the military, which Scouting has mirrored from the start, now welcomes homosexual recruits. But the damage has already been done. We live in an age where politics infects everything, including fast-food chicken choices. Now politics is undermining an organization that used to have something valuable to offer every American boy.

It may be that an organization so perfect for the middle of the 20th century just can’t adjust fast enough to succeed in the 21st.  Other institutions and organizations are better positioned to build character and teach values to today’s youth.

That’s OK, but when the summer breezes bring me back to my own youth, I can’t help feeling sad.  The Boy Scouts of America can make its own discriminatory rules. I can give back my Eagle medal, but not the lessons I learned, or the memories I cherish.

Rick Holmes, opinion editor for the Daily News, blogs at Holmes & Co. He can be reached at rholmes@wickedlocal.com.