There are synopses of his remarks online but I recommend watching the clip starting at around 8:45. The news reports don’t do justice to his tone. If you glance at the headlines, you might think this was a by now familiar I’ve-searched-my-conscience statement of moral “evolution” by a political figure. Nope. Gates isn’t trying to persuade here. He’s warning BSA officials in fairly dire terms: The courts are coming for us. We either change our policy now, “voluntarily,” and hopefully retain some modicum of control over our membership standards or we continue to resist, watch Scouting troops break away in protest or be shut down as punishment by the national organization, and have some judge somewhere ultimate decide that the BSA’s “duty to God” is incompatible with modern antidiscrimination law. Just because the Scouts won the first fight on this subject in court doesn’t mean they’ll win the rematch, especially when gay rights has all the momentum among federal judges. (It has momentum within the BSA too. Two years ago, the organization voted to allow gay Scouts, although the ban on gay Scout leaders remains.) Gates’s solution: Let each troop sponsor set its own standards. If religious sponsors like churches want to maintain the ban on gay Scout leaders, they can. If non-religious sponsors want to allow gay leaders, they can. It’s a federalist-type solution at a moment when the Supreme Court is poised to blow up federalism on gay marriage.
That being so, why Gates thinks his policy is more sustainable than the current BSA policy is a mystery to me. The DOJ flatly admitted during oral argument before the Supreme Court a few weeks ago that religious nonprofits will inevitably find their tax-exempt status being challenged in court for opposing gay marriage. Even if the BSA maintains its right to exclude gay members, its 501(c)(3) status is bound to end up on the menu if affiliated troops continue to bar gay Scout leaders. I don’t get why he thinks giving gay-rights activists half a loaf here will protect the other half. Then again, the Scouts knew that he’d helped lift the ban on gays in the military as SecDef when they named him president; they also know that the national leadership is under tremendous pressure from corporate sponsors, political institutions, and even Gates’s old boss to change its position on this matter. They had to know this was coming, no matter how reluctant Gates has been to force the issue. And like he says, what choice does he have, really? The courts have forced it on him.