The saddest aspect of this debate about the Boy Scouts of America is that, based on the rhetoric, one would think that all Scouts and their leaders do is sit around thinking of ways to persecute gay youth. One parent actually told me she didn't want her son to join because she didn't want him exposed to that.

Please, let's put that notion to rest. Scout leaders spend far too much time trying to get Tenderfoots to first aid merit badge classes at camp, helping get Eagle projects completed before 18th birthdays and picking melted marshmallows out of the hair of Webelos to deal with that kind of nonsense.

I know. I've done my share of ushering and hair-picking. My son joined Scouts five years ago, and I've been a trained adult leader for most of that time. Yes, neckerchief, slide, shorts and all. And in all my experience, the issue of sexual preference and the organization's policy on gays has come up only a handful of times, usually due to circumstances beyond our control.

Once was when my son was selling popcorn door to door and a potential customer made an acerbic remark about the organization's rules regarding gays and, in the most literal sense, slammed the door in his face. Unfortunately, this forced me to have a discussion with Christopher that I hoped would wait for a few more years.

On another occasion, it came up while our troop was doing a fundraiser in front of a Santa Rosa grocery store. When a Scout asked a shopper if he was interested in buying tickets to a pancake breakfast, he responded, "Do you still hate gays?" He might just as well have asked this lad if he still hated bouillabaisse.

The fact is Scouting is about teaching boys how to build campfires, make square knots and bait a hook, all while learning what it means to be trustworthy, courteous and self-reliant. There is no merit badge for sexual orientation. The only orienteering Scouts do is with maps and compasses. The issue of sexuality is as far from the day-to-day activities of Scouting as the Boy Scouts National Executive Board and BSA headquarters in Texas.

In fact, what most people don't know is that the Redwood Empire Council, which oversees 2,400 Scouts in 127 Boy Scout troops and Explorer units on the North Coast, has already separated itself from the national policy on membership. The council has adopted guidelines that state clearly the regional group "does not practice or support any form of unlawful discrimination based on ethnicity, religion, gender, disability, sexual orientation or political persuasion."

Well done. Enough said.

Unfortunately, many still want to have their say about this issue, and they are saying it to the Scouts themselves.

This is not new. It goes back to the Democratic National Convention in August 2000 when delegates booed Boy Scouts who had been invited on stage to lead the pledge of allegiance. The booing was directed at the organization's exclusion of openly gay Scouts and adult Scout leaders, a policy that had, just two months earlier, withstood U.S. Supreme Court review.

At that time, there also was a bill in Congress, authored by the North Bay's own Rep. Lynn Woolsey, that sought to revoke the congressional charter held by the Boy Scouts since 1916. Although it lost in a landslide, 362-12, some have kept the campaign alive.

The most recent example is SB 323 by state Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens. The bill seeks to revoke nonprofit tax breaks for any "youth organization" that discriminates on the basis of gender identity. The way the bill is written, it's clearly directed at just one organization — the Boy Scouts.

This emerged this spring even as the Boy Scouts' national council was debating a possible policy change. In a landmark vote on May 23, the Boy Scouts did change, but for many it wasn't enough. Scouting lifted its ban on gay youths as members, but a ban on openly gay leaders remains in place.

Lara's bill has since been approved by the state Senate on a 27-9 vote and is now in the Assembly. If it passes and is signed, some Scout groups may cease to exist.

Set aside for the moment the legions of well-heeled "adult" organizations — from the National Rifle Association, the NFL and the Heritage Foundation, to the AFL-CIO and the Miss America contest — that enjoy tax-exempt status and significant political access despite dubious directives that lay hidden in their policy manuals. (According to Time magazine, there are 10 times more tax-exempt organizations in America — 1,616,053 in all — than there are fast-food restaurants.) It's a sad day when lawmakers have nothing better to do than to tell Boy Scouts to take a hike.

Meanwhile, Scouts in other parts of the country are being punished for a different reason. Churches and other organizations from northern Idaho to Dallas to Delaware are severing ties to Scout troops and dens and revoking funding because the policy was changed <CF102>at all.

<CF101>Scouts are getting beat up on all sides. All the while, the evidence — increased dropout rates, lower test scores, soaring obesity levels — suggests that Scouting is needed more than ever.

It's always been a curiosity to me, this idea that the best way to improve an organization is to punish it into oblivion. Call it "addition by rejection."

Fortunately, it wasn't a tactic that was employed in encouraging the military to change a similar policy known as "Don't ask, don't tell." While that was debated to a better outcome, those in uniform were, for the most part, left alone.

Let's try that approach again. If you don't like the changes in the Scout policy, tell me or some other adult leader or, better yet, tell the BSA leaders in Irving, Texas. But leave the kids selling popcorn out of it.

They're just kids.

Paul Gullixson is editorial director of The Press Democrat in Santa Rosa. Email him at paul.gullixson@pressdemocrat.com.