The Boy Scouts of America has ended its blanket ban on gay adult leaders, but will allow church-sponsored Scout units to maintain the exclusion for religious reasons.
The new policy, aimed at easing a controversy that has embroiled the Boy Scouts for years, takes effect immediately. It was approved Monday by the BSA’s National Executive Board on a 45-12 vote during a closed-to-the-media teleconference.
“For far too long this issue has divided and distracted us,” said the BSA’s president, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates. “Now it’s time to unite behind our shared belief in the extraordinary power of Scouting to be a force for good.”
Initial reactions to the decision from groups on both sides suggested the issue might remain divisive, at least on the national level.
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The Mormon church, which sponsors more Scout units than any other organization, said it was “deeply troubled” by the decision. Church officials suggested they would look into the possibility of forming their own organization to replace Boy Scouts. “The admission of openly gay leaders is inconsistent with the doctrines of the Church and what have traditionally been the values of the Boy Scouts of America,” read a statement from Mormon headquarters in Salt Lake City.
In contrast, the Human Rights Campaign, a national LGBT-rights organization, said the Boy Scouts should not allow church-sponsored units to continue excluding gays. “Discrimination should have no place in the Boy Scouts, period,” said the HRC’s president, Chad Griffin. “BSA officials should now demonstrate true leadership and begin the process of considering a full national policy of inclusion.”
Gates foreshadowed Monday’s action on May 21, when he told the Scouts’ national meeting that the long-standing ban on participation by openly gay adults was no longer sustainable. He said the ban was to be the target of lawsuits that the Scouts likely would lose.
Two weeks ago, the new policy was approved unanimously by the BSA’s 17-member National Executive Committee. It would allow local Scout units to select adult leaders without regard to sexual orientation – a stance that several Scout councils have already adopted in defiance of the official national policy.
In 2013, after heated internal debate, the BSA decided to allow openly gay youth as scouts, but not gay adults as leaders. The BSA’s top leaders pledged to defend the right of any church-sponsored units to continue excluding gays as adult volunteers. But that assurance has not satisfied some conservative church leaders.
“In recent years I have seen a definite cooling on the part of Baptist churches toward the Scouts,” said the Rev. Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. “This will probably bring that cooling to a freeze.”
A more nuanced response came from the National Catholic Committee on Scouting, which expressed interest in maintaining its ties with the BSA, but also voiced concerns. Notably, it conveyed a reluctance to accept participation by anyone who engaged in sexual conduct outside of a heterosexual marriage.
There are 260 local councils chartered by the BSA. The Lewis & Clark Council encompasses most of the metro-east, formed in 2009 when the Okaw Valley and Trails West councils were consolidated. The largest council in southern Illinois, Lewis & Clark covers 15 counties, including Madison and St. Clair.
Nearly 25,000 young people participate in Scouting in the Lewis & Clark Council, which means there isn’t exactly a consensus on what this ruling means, according to Council CEO Alicia M. Lifrak.
“We are from a very diverse population, and so the opinions are equally diverse,” Lifrak said. “We have volunteers that have concerns and many volunteers who are elated with this decision.”
While she did not feel it was appropriate to discuss her personal opinions, Lifrak said the council’s leadership “fully supports the National Executive Board’s decision to move forward with a more inclusive organization.”
“This has been a very transparent process, explaining not only that this is the direction we’re going, but why,” Lifrak said. She referred to the national organization’s stated reasons for its decision, which included the prospect of expensive litigation in multiple states with little likelihood of being able to continue defending the existing policy.
“Due to the social, political and legal changes taking place in our country and in our movement, the current adult leadership policy cannot be sustained,” the statement read. “The best way to allow the BSA to continue to focus on its mission and preserve its core values is to address the issue and set its own course to ensure it continues to provide life-changing experiences to youth they cannot get anywhere else.”
Each council is divided into regional districts. The Cahokia Mounds district includes most of Madison County, including Edwardsville, Collinsville, Granite City, Highland and Troy. The St. Clair district includes most of St. Clair County, including Belleville, Dupo, East St. Louis, O’Fallon and Swansea.
St. Clair does not currently have a chairman listed. Andrew Reinking has recently been named chairman of the Cahokia Mounds district. Reinking said he has not had a chance to meet with the rest of the board or to hear from any troop leaders or churches yet.
“This ruling is too recent to have a lot of feedback,” he said. “How much will it change things? I don’t know.”
Each individual troop has a sponsoring organization, and some — though not all — are churches. In the metro-east, many are Catholic parishes such as St. Teresa of Belleville. But those parishes likely will defer to their diocesan leaders, according to St. Teresa Monsignor David Darrin, advised by the local Catholic Committee on Scouting. Representatives from the committee and from the Catholic Diocese of Belleville could not be reached for comment.
But for some leaders, the controversy mostly remains at the national level, while the day-to-day work of Scouting and Boy Scout leadership likely will remain unaffected. Dennis Branson of Dupo has been involved in Scouting since 1986 as an adult, and goes all the way back to Cub Scouts in the 1950s. Currently he is an assistant Scoutmaster with one troop, a charter organization representative with another troop, and is on the council committee.
Branson said scout leaders have always been picked by the chartering organization, whether it is a Christian church, a civic organization like the Kiwanis or Oddfellows, a school or a non-Christian religious group. He pointed out that some troops are chartered by Hindu or Buddhist groups, nonreligious groups or Christian denominations that do not have objections to gay and lesbian leaders, and this decision allows them to choose the leaders they want without hindrance.
“All we have done is make the organization more open to them,” he said. All Scoutmasters still have to go through the same process of selection by the chartering organization and the leadership, and be trained both in Scouting procedures and in youth protection with a criminal background check, he said. There has not been a line on the application for adult volunteers or for the Scouts themselves asking about sexual orientation or religious belief, he said.
“I think it’s a whole bunch of hubbub about nothing. Nothing is really going to change,” Branson said. He said he has already received a directive from the United Methodist Church - which he said is second only to the Mormon Church for BSA participation - that confirms they will continue exactly as they have. “The process for selecting Scoutmasters will still depend on the local church and the unit that responds there,” he said. “No church will be required to accept any volunteer because of this policy.”
If the Mormon Church does cut ties with the BSA, it may hurt the Scouts in the short term, he said. But he believes it will bounce back, with new members joining and those who initially fell away returning once they realize day-to-day Scouting activities have not changed.
The important thing, Branson said, is that the benefits of Scouting continue. “Scouting is one of the absolute most important things for youths that there is,” he said. “Youths... come up to me years later and comment about how great it was.”
He said he had a friend who grew up in the roughest parts of Boston, and credited Scouting for his eventual success, achieving a doctorate and working for a major pharmaceutical company. “He said if not for Boy Scouts, he would have been in prison,” Branson said. “I’ve heard stories like that all along.”
Under the BSA’s new policy, gay leaders who were previously removed from Scouting because of the ban would have the opportunity to reapply for volunteer positions. If otherwise qualified, a gay adult would be eligible to serve as a Scoutmaster or unit leader.
Gates, who became the BSA’s president in May 2014, said at the time that he personally would have favored ending the ban on gay adults, but he opposed any further debate after the Scouts’ policymaking body upheld the ban. In May, he said that recent events “have confronted us with urgent challenges I did not foresee and which we cannot ignore.”
He cited an announcement by the BSA’s New York City chapter in early April that it had hired Pascal Tessier, the nation’s first openly gay Eagle Scout, as a summer camp leader. Gates also cited broader gay-rights developments and warned that rigidly maintaining the ban “will be the end of us as a national movement.”
The BSA’s right to exclude gays was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2000. But since then, the policy has prompted numerous major corporations to suspend charitable donations to the Scouts and strained relations with some municipalities.
More recently, the BSA faced a civil rights investigation in New York and lawsuits in other states over the ban.
Kenneth Upton, a lawyer for the LGBT-rights group Lambda Legal, questioned whether the BSA’s new policy to let church-sponsored units continue to exclude gay adults would be sustainable.
“There will be a period of time where they'll have some legal protection,” Upton said. “But that doesn’t mean the lawsuits won’t keep coming. … They will become increasingly marginalized from the direction society is going.”
Like several other major youth organizations, the Boy Scouts have experienced a membership decline in recent decades. Current membership, according to the BSA, is about 2.4 million boys and about 1 million adults.
After the 2013 decision to admit gay youth, some conservatives split from the BSA to form a new group, Trail Life USA, which has created its own ranks, badges and uniforms. The group claims a membership of more than 25,000 youths and adults.
Associated Press writer Brady McCombs in Salt Lake City contributed to this report.