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Steve Nelson: Scouts Aren’t Alone in Tolerating Bigotry

The Boy Scouts of America should design a new merit badge for kicking the can down the road. It seems a strong suit of the organization, although it is hardly alone in that regard.

I refer to the recent decision, or nondecision, regarding sexual identity. Just as they appeared poised to join the civilized world by removing the ban on homosexuality, the Boy Scouts succumbed to (primarily religious) pressure and “deferred” a decision pending further deliberation.

Even the now-retracted proposal to end the ban was political sleight of hand. While proposing to lift the universal mandate prohibiting gay participation, they were also proposing that local organizations could continue to discriminate. This is sadly evocative of states’ rights loopholes in the long struggle for the civil rights of black Americans. Then and now, this “states’ rights” or “local control” strategy allows for spouting superficial rhetoric about civil rights while actually turning a blind eye to ongoing bigotry. This is not courageous.

I say the Boy Scouts are not alone because an organization to which my school belongs is essentially doing the same thing. The National Association of Independent Schools represents more than 1,000 private schools. The association declares, among its many Principles of Good Practice, that member schools should not discriminate in enrollment or employment on the basis of sexual identity, race, gender, etc. Most private schools have explicit nondiscriminatory policies in this regard as well as active programs to support all the children and adults in their communities, regardless of their sexual identity.

I learned last year that a number of member institutions quite explicitly discriminate in both hiring and enrollment. One of these schools, Westminster Christian Academy, not only prohibits gay and lesbian men, women, boys and girls, from joining their community, but it has also partnered with Chick Fil A in that restaurant chain’s very public anti-gay stance.

I brought this apparent inconsistency to board members of the association last year, challenging them to explain why member institutions could violate a nondiscriminatory principle, apparently without consequence. The response was as unsatisfying as that of the Boy Scouts. The can was kicked down the road for a year and then I received its decision.

In explaining its decision, the association first pontificated about its deep commitment to gay rights and then pointed out that, after receiving my complaint, it had softened its guidelines so that schools might comply “in spirit” to these criteria, thus leaving a gaping loophole. This way, the association no longer has the embarrassing tension of explicitly espousing a standard and then ignoring its violation.

The board also cited the so-called “ministerial exception.” The problem with this citation is that it doesn’t actually apply. The “ministerial exception” is a compliance exception allowed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that gives churches and religious institutions carte blanche to hire who they want to fill ministerial positions. It applies only to clergy-like roles, however. It would not apply to the employment of history teachers, for example, even in religious schools. And mirroring the Boy Scouts’ affection for local control, the association suggested that regional or local affiliates might best determine the standards to be used in judging compliance with nondiscriminatory principles. So, openly discriminatory schools continue membership in an organization that supposedly avows a nondiscriminatory mission. That is not courageous either.

The state of current law is complicated. Sexual identity is the one human variable that is still subject to government-sanctioned discrimination. A federal prohibition of this kind of discrimination (the Employment Non-Discrimination Act — ENDA) has been continuously proposed and tabled since 1994, but never passed. But ENDA, even if enacted, has broad religious exemptions and would allow religious organizations to exclude gay folks from employment (or enrollment) in a way they cannot do to any other people.

Similarly, the Boy Scouts continue to discriminate with impunity because of the Supreme Court case Boy Scouts of America v. Dale, in which the court ruled that the Boy Scouts’ right to freedom of association trumped the civil rights of gay Scoutmaster James Dale, whom it had expelled. In his dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens presciently noted that “ancient” prejudices against homosexuals would be thereafter perpetuated by the “creation of a constitutional shield.”

The net result of all this complexity is that gay Americans are subjected to discrimination because the law and legal precedent permit bigotry, sometimes based on religious belief. It is simply astounding that the most pronounced bigotry remaining in our country is often ordained under the banner of Christianity.

Whether in schools, the Boy Scouts or any other realm of American society, it is unimaginable that such open bigotry would persist if the human characteristic under consideration were race, ethnicity or, ironically, religion! There is no difference except, perhaps, in the minds and hearts of those who remain unsure of the full humanity and dignity of lesbian and gay boys and girls, women and men.

Steve Nelson lives in Sharon and New York City, where he is the head of the Calhoun School, a private school.

Related

Letter: Respect Our Rights, Too

Monday, February 25, 2013

To the Editor: In response to Steve Nelson’s column, “Scouts Aren’t Alone In Tolerating Bigotry” (Feb. 17), I say if Nelson doesn’t want religion forced into his institutions or his own life, then he should recognize the right of others to not be forced to accept gays or gay culture into their institutions or lives. It’s quite simple, really. I …