My eldest son is an undergraduate at the University of Maryland at College Park. He is an Eagle Scout.
My youngest son is a high school senior who will probably attend college at a state school in Maryland next year. He is a Life Scout and will hopefully attain Eagle rank by the cutoff deadline of his 18th birthday.
For both of my sons and for other men that I know, both young and now not-so-young, Scouting has been an extraordinarily valuable learning experience. It is troubling to me that the number of boys participating in Scouting is either stagnant or declining. Given that background, one might think that I would have responded immediately to the email that I received this afternoon requesting that I respond to a poll on the website of WBAL television asking readers whether they supported or opposed a bill pending before the Maryland General Assembly, HB 296.
HB 296 would waive tuition and fees at all Maryland colleges and universities for Eagle Scouts and recipients of the Girl Scout Gold Award. The fiscal note that accompanies the bill indicates that the cost of the bill in fiscal year 2006 would be between $2M and $2.9M. (Note: I don't put a high value on the accuracy of fiscal notes concerning bills before the Maryland General Assembly. This is not a knock against the people who prepare the fiscal notes. It seems more to be a result of a lack of sufficient resources.) Not only did I not cast my vote early and often in support of HB 296, I sent a reply email indicating that I opposed the bill.
First, as a matter of general public policy, I do not believe that private institutions, such as the Boy and Girl Scouts, should act as the gatekeepers to public benefits. There are innumerable problems giving private organizations this role. By way of example, the private organization would not be directly answerable to the public with respect to the standards it would require of, for instance, the award of Eagle. There would be immense pressure to water down the requirements given the significant financial benefits that would accrue with the award. Yet, there is no mechanism for public accountability.
Second, given the position of the Boy Scouts with respect to participation in Scouting by gay scouts and leaders, it would seem to me that Scouting, as an institution, should oppose the bill. In the case of Boy Scouts of America v. Dale, the Scouts succeeded in overturning a New Jersey statute that would have forced them to admit openly gay Scouts and Scout leaders. The Supreme Court's opinion rested on the Scouts' right of expressive free association. That is, as a private organization, the Scouts can accept or reject anyone they desire regardless of the reason for inclusion or exclusion. If the government were to offer significant financial rewards for participation in Scouting, the movement would, in essence, become a quasi-public organization and the premise that underlies Dale would disappear.
I believe that the policy of Scouting with respect to gay Scouts and leaders is wrong in principle and will ultimately weaken the Scouting movement. That, however, is an argument for another day. Suffice it to say for now that public funds should not be awarded based upon successful participation in the program of an organization that discriminates. Just as importantly, a private organization, if it wants to remain a private organization, cannot be a conduit for the award of public benefits based upon successful completion of its programs.
Update: Sometimes when addressing "hot" current questions, we miss more established issues. I certainly did here. HB 296 is clearly unconstitutional, at least as applied to the Boy Scouts, because the Boy Scouts require that their members profess a belief in some supreme being. There may be some debate as to whether the state can exclude gays and lesbians from receiving state benefits, but there is no question but that the state cannot direct benefits to the religious and exclude atheists and agnostics. (I don't know whether Girl Scouts require their members to profess a belief in a supreme being. I understand, however, that they do not have an exclusionary policy against lesbians.)