Judicial Notebook

In a sharply divided and controversial ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) could not be compelled by a New Jersey antidiscrimination law to allow an openly gay scoutmaster to serve in the organization (Boy Scouts of America v. Dale). The 5­-4 majority in this case ruled that doing so would violate the BSA's First Amendment right to freely express the view that homosexual behavior is immoral and that the government cannot force the BSA to admit an openly gay member, because doing so would directly interfere with the BSA's ability to freely express those views. The decision reversed a New Jersey Supreme Court ruling (734 A.2d 1196) that the BSA had violated New Jersey's antidiscrimination law forbidding places of public accommodation from discriminating based on sexual orientation when it dismissed an openly gay assistant scoutmaster.

Psychological implications of this decision

U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens and three other justices filed a dissenting opinion in which they warned that the harm caused by prejudice against the gay and lesbian community "can only be aggravated by the creation of a constitutional shield for a policy that is itself the product of a habitual way of thinking about strangers." This warning suggests that the majority's decision in this case is likely to reinforce negative stereotypes against the gay and lesbian community and that in turn these stereotypes will lead to a higher incidence of harmful discrimination against gay and lesbian people.

Is there an empirical basis for these concerns? An amicus curiae brief filed with the U.S. Supreme Court by APA suggests that there is. The brief provides a thorough review of the scientific literature relevant to the case, and concludes that:

  • Gay people have long endured negative prejudice and discrimination (even the BSA does not dispute this conclusion).

  • Such discrimination can be abated by antidiscrimination legislation.

The first conclusion is supported by a large body of research indicating that 80 percent of gay or bisexual people report having been verbally harassed because of their sexual orientation, 44 percent report being the victim of threats of physical violence, 19 percent report that they were the victim of property vandalism and 17 percent report being the victim of a violent assault.

The second conclusion of APA's brief draws support from another large body of research, collectively demonstrating that the more contact an individual has with openly gay people, the less likely that individual will be to exhibit negative prejudice against gay people. The Supreme Court decision in this case will prevent New Jersey's antidiscrimination law from having its intended effect among the BSA membership by effectively limiting contact between openly gay people and BSA members. Thus, according to the numerous scientific studies cited by APA, an opportunity to reduce negative prejudice against gay people among BSA members has been missed.

Despite the legality of the BSA's policy, mounting psychological evidence suggests that there is no reason to keep gay scoutmasters from interacting with the scouts. This research shows that children who spend considerable time with openly gay adults are no more likely to be sexually molested, to engage in gender-inappropriate behaviors, to grow up to be gay/bisexual, to be promiscuous, to be immoral, to have trouble with peers or to have a poor self-image than children who do not interact with gay adults.

Future research

Boy Scouts of America v. Dale and the APA amicus curiae brief submitted in this case raise several questions for psychological researchers. For example, will BSA members be more likely to exhibit prejudice against gay people than similarly aged peers who are not members? Will BSA members be more likely to discriminate against gay people than other minority group members? Will BSA members who grow up to be gay or bisexual be more likely to be confused, depressed or anxious about their sexuality than other gay/bisexual people? Will BSA members who grow up to be gay/bisexual be more likely to exhibit signs of a potential for self-destructive forms of behavior, such as suicide ideation or low self-esteem, than nongay members or comparable nonmembers of the BSA?

A clearer understanding of the long-term impact of this case may not emerge until current BSA members reach adulthood.