A little controversy popped up in Montpelier a couple of weeks ago, and even though it's no longer a debate in the City Council, it's still attracting attention and generating some angry words.
Okay, I'm not going to bury the lede: Mayor John Hollar and Councilor Thierry Guerlain did the right thing when they stood up for principle even when the other side was the ultimate American-as-apple-pie organization, the Boy Scouts of America.
Let's start with what did not happen. The Montpelier City Council did not bar the Boy Scouts from the city's annual Independence Day celebration. It's true, they won't be there selling bottled water or collecting garbage, but it's also true that they chose not to make their case to the Council.
The Montpelier City Council publishes an agenda for every meeting, and part of that agenda is called the consent agenda, a list of items that are considered so uncontroversial that they can be expected to pass without debate. Any member who thinks an item on the consent agenda will require debate can ask to have that item removed from the consent agenda.
That's what happened a couple of weeks ago, when Council member Theirry Guerlain asked to have the request by the Boy Scouts for permission to sell bottled water removed from the consent agenda. Guerlain's reasoning was that the anti-gay position of the Boy Scouts of America is a big deal, and is worthy of full debate. All but one of the council members agreed, so the request was passed to the next scheduled meeting, last Wednesday.
What happened next was pretty simple: faced with the opportunity to explain their position on gays in scouting, or to make their case for why the Boy Scouts and the good deeds they do are worthy of support even despite their antigay positions, the Boy Scouts just didn't show up, depriving themselves and the people of Montpelier of a chance to debate the issues.
By the way, and to show their public spirit, the Boy Scouts also won't be volunteering to clean up the site, which they've been doing for years.
The letters to the editor section has been filled with criticism of the Council, and particularly Hollar and Guerlain, with letter writers tossing around terms like “bullying” and questioning whether the next step is to interrogate the hot dog vendor on “whether he believes in Jesus as his savior or Allah and Mohammed as his choice for spiritual guidance“.
Even my friend John Walters, one of the more astute observers of the Vermont political scene, seems to be missing the key point on this. Here's what he says at his new blog, thevpo.org, explaining that discriminating against gays in 2014 is not exactly like buying Krugerrands during the height of apartheid:
I disagree. I think Thierry Guerlain had it exactly right:
“I hope that we don’t approve (the vendor requests), and I hope that it makes national press, and I hope that the message gets to Washington that we said no,” said Guerlain. “We’re not going to let a group that openly discriminates against gays sell water at our parade. … It’s difficult, it’s uncomfortable, but I think it’s our chance to do the right thing.”
This is not a matter of raising highfalutin' principles over petty disputes. The speed with which marriage equality and social disapproval of discrimination against gays and lesbians have spread throughout our society has been inspirational. You can't just say that the Boy Scouts' discriminatory practices should be overlooked because of the other good they do, or because their brand of discrimination isn't as bad as other types of discrimination we have struggled, and continue to struggle, to overcome.
We're Vermont. We were the first state to outlaw slavery, and we actually did divest from South Africa back in 1986. We have led the nation in gay rights, and we don't have to accept discrimination just to get volunteers to clean up after our parade.
John Hollar, Thierry Guerlain, and the council members who voted with them got it right.