For most Boy Scouts, their Eagle Scout badge is a mark of honor. But for Ijpe DeKoe, a gay former scout, it became a mark of intolerance.
Based on its principle to be "morally straight," the Boy Scouts of America has been opposed to gay members since its founding in 1910. Its policy was upheld by the Supreme Court in 2000 on the basis that BSA is a private organization and may establish its own membership requirements.
But that may soon change. On Thursday BSA's National Council in Texas will vote on a proposed policy that would allow openly gay youths. DeKoe, 35, and other gay scouts previously were forced to keep their sexuality private.
The policy still would ban openly gay adults from leadership positions, leading gay rights groups to accuse BSA of discrimination and stereotyping. For gay scouts hoping to continue scouting once they reach adulthood, the policy also would contradict one of BSA's most important maxims, DeKoe said.
''Part of scouting -- the whole message of scouting, actually -- is that it's a lifetime of scouting," he said.
While BSA prepares to vote on the policy, the national attitude toward gays is more favorable than at any time in history. The National Opinion Research Center recently found that slightly more than 4 in 10 Americans believe homosexual relations to be "always wrong," compared to 7 in 10 Americans when the center first asked the question in 1973. And a recent Gallup poll found that 53 percent of Americans believe same-sex marriages should be legal and afford the same rights as traditional marriages, while 46 percent said they should not.
The same Gallup poll found that most Americans against gay marriage cite religious beliefs. For the Boy Scouts, opposition to gay members is similarly rooted, especially in the Mid-South, said Chickasaw Council CEO H. "Woody" Woodward.
Many conservative Christian groups have voiced their opposition to the proposed policy.
The BSA oath reads, in part: "I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country." It cites the oath as part of its stance against atheist and agnostic members, as well.
That pledge also includes a duty to other people, which gay former Boy Scout Matt Babb of Memphis believes BSA is struggling to fulfill.
''The Scouts is a God-oriented organization, so they tend to teach values that are based on that. So maybe they're held up by those religious principles," he said.
Babb, 38, earned his Eagle Scout badge in 1989. He was inducted into BSA's Order of the Arrow, the group's national honor society.
He shared DeKoe's sentiment about the proposed policy change.
''In the Scouts, there's a lot of camaraderie. And if they turn 18 and have a leadership role where they can take that camaraderie further, then they should be given that chance. Sexuality shouldn't have anything to do with it," he said. "The only time it should have anything to do with it is if he's acting inappropriately."
Woodward has been involved with BSA in the Mid-South for 32 years. In that time, he said, several adult BSA troop leaders have been removed from the organization because of their sexuality. But there've been no reported instances in which a gay scout leader had inappropriate contact with children, he said.
''The current policy states that if you're an avowed homosexual, then you're not meeting the membership standards of the Boy Scouts. I've never had to remove somebody under 18 years of age, but we have had situations where we had to remove an adult participant, somebody who has come out and said they were homosexual, because it violated our membership policy," he said.
Woodward added that he has never seen scouts bullied because of their sexuality.
DeKoe and others have linked the country's changing attitude toward gays with the BSA's sharp decline in membership. In April, BSA counted 2.6 million members, about a third of its membership in 1999.
The BSA also has lost financial contributors over its long-standing position against gay members. Intel, UPS and Merck are among several groups that have severed financial ties with BSA over its policy.
''I think we're seeing it hurt the Boy Scouts," DeKoe said. "Financial donors are backing out. Troops are complaining. Memberships are dropping drastically, and I think there's a disconnect between national scouting councils and the individual groups. And the national side is trying to meet the more liberal groups halfway (with the proposed policy), but they're doing it badly."
(Contact Scott Carroll of The Commercial Appeal in Memphis, Tenn., at www.commercialappeal.com.)