Scouts' Honor May Be Tarnished, but Our Own Is at Greater Risk

Norah Vincent is a freelance journalist who lives in New York City

It's all very well to be against discrimination--until you start discriminating against people who discriminate. It's strange and confusing, how the good can become the bad so quickly. This virtue stuff is a slippery business, especially in the public square, and that's, of course, why the founding fathers adopted the Constitution as a guide.

It's hard to know when to divorce your personal feelings from your political convictions and still harder, once you're offended by something, to do the so-called right thing. Or shall we say to not do the myopic thing--the thing that takes revenge on the immediate offender in the short term but ends up betraying a cherished civic ideal in the process. That ideal being, of course, equality.

Equality has a funny way of bumping into that other precious ideal we've enshrined in government: freedom. They're not quite incompatible, but they're often at odds. And when they are at odds, common sense and historical perspective tell us that balance is what's called for.

Equality, nice as it sounds, has a tendency to become a justification for oppression--little oppressions at first and then bigger and bigger ones--until you end up with that ugly ball of wax we call totalitarianism. George Orwell warned us about this a long time ago with that very simple, very child-like maxim: "All animals are equal," which soon became "but some animals are more equal than others." And this is all but unavoidable when equality reigns unchecked. It becomes its opposite.

This is what's starting to happen with the Boy Scouts. The Scouts have banned gays from their ranks. Last year, the Supreme Court upheld their right to do so. Private groups, the court said, have a right to circumscribe their membership as they see fit, because freedom of association is protected by the 1st Amendment.

Ever since that decision, however, groups opposed to the Boy Scouts' policy have been trying to punish the organization. Some public schools, for example, have begun forbidding the Scouts to use their facilities for after-school meetings. And this is what I mean when I say that the people who opposed discrimination are now discriminating against the discriminators. Equality is turning on itself.

The Scouts banned gays on principle because they think homosexuality is immoral and a bad example for young people. Now gays and their supporters are banning the Scouts on principle because they think discrimination is immoral and a bad example for young people. The net effect has been a violation of the spirit and the letter of the 1st Amendment.

First the spirit. If you grant a group the right to free association with one hand, but with the other you attempt to take that right away by denying them equal access to public grounds, you've effectively nullified the whole proceeding.

And this is where learning to separate what we dislike from what's civically responsible comes into play. The Boy Scouts' ban is ludicrous, prejudicial and irrational. In that sense, we, like activist Eagle Scout Steven Cozza, should exercise our right to free speech and oppose the ban verbally and by petition and peaceful demonstration. Yet when it comes to the law, we must put aside our gripe about the group's narrow-mindedness and avoid narrow-mindedness ourselves.

For if we persist in ousting the Boy Scouts--if we impose our vigilante justice on them--we are setting a dangerous precedent that will come back to haunt us. When the tide changes and Christian fundamentalism rather than radical equality is in vogue, private gay groups will find themselves in the soup if they refuse to admit Boy Scouts or even neo-Nazis to their ranks.

Then, at last, there's the letter of the law, which, thanks to the sage foresight of the framers, doesn't rely on our good will for its efficacy. Here it is: Private institutions can discriminate; public ones can't. The Boy Scouts are private. The schools in question are public. So it goes that, while the Boy Scouts can ban gays, the schools can't ban the Boy Scouts.

Like it or not, it's fair and, though inimical to our instincts, best for both freedom and equality in the long run.

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