Indiana University expert: Boy Scout decision on gay leaders is 'passing buck' to local councils

  • May 21, 2015


BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- The president of the Boy Scouts of America has called for ending the organization’s ban on gay leaders but said groups that sponsor Scout troops should be able to set their own requirements for leaders. Indiana University professor Beth Gazley says the approach amounts to “passing the buck” and probably won’t be good for the Boy Scouts organization in the long run.

“Since the BSA of America membership voted in 2013 to end their policy of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, observers have waited for the other shoe to drop," Gazley said. "This is it.”

She said there are good reasons why this action by the BSA was bound to happen.

“Even after the historic 2013 vote allowing gay members, the Scouts’ continued resistance to gay leaders was unsupportable in the long run,” she said. “That is because blocking gays in any role was not consistent with public opinion, where the majority of Americans of any age no longer support workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. And the gap in favor of gay rights is even wider among young Americans, who are the Scouts’ major constituency.”

After the 2013 vote, Gazley said, a process that had already begun continued apace: Local councils are defying the ban by hiring gay Scout leaders.

“The BSA announced today that it will take no action against these local councils,” she said. “That is wise, given how internally divisive these actions would be.

“This decision also made economic and political sense for the Scouts. They have lost sponsorships from key corporations, key national leaders and the military. Their membership numbers continue to decline. And the most extreme ends of their membership -- both progressive and conservative -- have long since spun off their own youth groups.

But Gazley said there are also at least two good reasons to be cautious about what this means for gay rights and true equality within the Scouting ranks in the long run:

  • The Scouts are practicing a policy of letting local councils decide what leadership criteria to apply. “Observers of the Scouts have to understand that most Scouting troops are now sponsored by churches,” she said. “The fastest-growing Scout membership is within the Mormon church. These local councils still exercise control over who becomes a leader. And a legal challenge to their right to do so would be impossible after BSA v. Dale (a Supreme Court decision allowing BSA to bar gay members) was decided in 2000.”
  • The new Boy Scouts of America policy “is just ‘passing the buck’ -- it lets the national council off the hook,” Gazley said. “It’s the least courageous aspect of what seems on the face of it like a courageous stand in favor of gay rights. It’s not courageous because discrimination by local councils can still happen.”

Gazley said the approach is also not healthy for the Scouts in the long run.

“Conservative Scout troops will continue to coexist alongside more progressive and inclusive troops,” she said. “They will look less and less like one another. Their national jamboree will be increasingly divided. The mission of a united BSA of America will be increasingly diluted in favor of local councils. Can the Scouts survive with 100,000 different local units, each with a different view of what being a Boy Scout means?”

Gazley is an associate professor and Teaching and Learning Faculty Chair in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University Bloomington. Her research areas include nonprofit management, inter-organizational collaboration, the management of membership associations, and volunteerism. She can be reached at 812- 855-1464 or For assistance contact Jim Hanchett at 812-856-5490 or

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