Boy Scouts delay decision on gay membership, citing 'complexity'

First there was the backlash to the Boy Scouts of America membership policy that prohibited openly gay scouts or troop leaders. Then came the backlash to the backlash, from conservative groups. Now the Boy Scouts have called a timeout.

By , Staff writer

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    The statue of a Scout stands in the entrance to the Boy Scouts of America headquarters in Irving, Texas, Tuesday. BSA board members on Wednesday delayed until May a vote on whether to end a longstanding and controversial ban on gay membership.
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The Boy Scouts of America (BSA) decision Wednesday to push back a vote on whether to admit gays in Scouting, either as adult leaders or as troop members, guarantees that the organization will remain in the cross hairs of the culture wars for at least another three months – and indicates that advocates and opponents of gays in Scouting have wrestled to a tie in the matchup so far.

But conservative and faith-based groups that opposed changing the no-admittance policy had to be heartened by the postponement, given that the BSA executive board had been expected to lift the national ban and let local chapters decide for themselves what their policy toward gays would be. In recent days and weeks, these groups had argued that the BSA was caving in to the demands of liberal activists and pressure from corporate sponsors. 

Wednesday's action by the BSA executive board delays any decision until May, when "the approximately 1,400 voting members of the national council will take action on the resolution at the national meeting," the BSA said in its statement. Between now and then, the group will solicit further input from "representatives of Scouting's membership" and draft a resolution on "membership standards." 

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"Due to the complexity of this issue, the organization needs time for a more deliberate review of its membership policy," the group said.

The backlash to a possible change on the no-gays policy came in large part from within the Scouting ranks. About 70 percent of local Scouting chapters are operated by faith-based groups, namely the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons) with 38,000 chapters, followed by the United Methodists at 11,000 chapters and the Roman Catholic Church at 8,570. Some had warned that if the BSA lifted the national ban, the Boy Scouts would lose millions of dollars because most faith-based chapters would simply band with competing, but lesser-known, scouting organizations such as Navigators USA and the Baden-Powell Service Association.

Lifting the ban, they argue, would be an affront to religious liberty. Moreover, these critics say, allowing gay adults to become troop leaders would expose children to a lifestyle they see as illegitimate and may even raise the potential for sexual abuse. Going forward, they are expected to continue to press their case.

“There is no reason to change this policy because we shouldn’t be sexualizing children, and that’s what this is all about,” says Greg Quinlan, board president of Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays & Gays (PFOX), a Washington organization that advocates on behalf of what it calls the “ex-gay community.”

PFOX is one of several groups, including the Family Research Council and American Family Association, that said in a letter to the BSA released Monday that lifting the ban would be “a grave mistake.” Decades of sexual abuse of Boy Scouts, which a court order forced the BSA to divulge in October, were caused by “hundreds of sexual predators who had managed to hide their attraction to boys and enter the Boy Scouts,” the letter stated. 

“How will parents be able to entrust their children to the Boy Scouts if they trade the well-being of the boys for corporate dollars?” the letter asks. 

The BSA policy banning gay members had come under fire by gay-rights groups, gay Scouts who hid their sexual orientation, and also parents who want the organization to embrace the values of tolerance and diversity. Other entities – notably the family-owned restaurant chain Chick-fil-A – had come under similar scrutiny for their policies opposing gay marriage or gay rights. (Chick-fil-A came under fire from gay activists and some politicians in July, when its president said he supported the “biblical definition of the family unit.” It has since demurred from public discussion of the topic, and recently revealed that its philanthropic foundation has stopped funding conservative groups such the Family Research Council, Exodus International, and others fighting legalized same-sex marriage.)

Gay-rights advocates had also been less than satisfied with the fence-straddling policy shift considered by the BSA executive board, which in effect would kick the decision about admitting gays to the local level. 

That position meant “a lot of boys and men who want to become troop leaders are still going to be discriminated against, and that will be consistent with the new policy," says David Cohen, a constitutional law and gender issues expert at the Earle Mack School of Law at Drexel University in Philadelphia. "It’s like the federal government telling states they are no longer requiring segregation but to go on and do it yourselves. It’s a step, but it’s sending the wrong message.”

Gay-rights groups see Wednesday's BSA action as a setback, but say they will not be deterred in their efforts to ultimately get the policy changed.

“The Boy Scouts of America is choosing to ignore the cries of millions, including religious institutions, current Scouting families, and corporate sponsors, but these cries will not be silenced. We're living in a culture where hurting young gay people because of who they are is unpopular and discriminatory,” Herndon Graddick, president of Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, said in a statement Wednesday. 

As recently as last year, the BSA said it would not change its national policy refusing admission to gay leaders and gay Scouts.

PFOX's Mr. Quinlan says he worries the BSA has been “bullied” by powerful members of its board, namely Randall Stephenson, chairman and chief executive of AT&T, and James Turley, chairman and chief executive of Ernst & Young, both of whom have said they support changing the policy.

“By bribing or coercing the Boys Scouts to change their policy, I will say that this incident at least exposes them to what they’re about,” Quinlan says.

For now, the conservative groups will get what they want: more time to argue their position and more involvement from local Scouting chapters.

“We believe that any decision that strikes at the core of our 103-year history merits full input from all stakeholders in deliberation and discussion,” stated the Great Salt Lake Council, the largest Mormon-affiliated Boy Scout chapter, on its website, in the days leading up to Wednesday's BSA meeting.

Tim Parsons, a history professor at Washington University in St. Louis, notes that Boy Scouts of America faced a similar bind in the early 20th century over racial integration. Then, it decided that desegregation would be decided at the local level. He says the BSA may ultimately follow the same path regarding sexual orientation, even at the risk of being ostracized by conservative groups, because it wants to remain the preeminent scouting organization, reversing declining membership dollars and the risk of cultural irrelevancy.

“Scouts are used to having access to state resources at a local or national level. They risk becoming marginalized,” Mr. Parsons says. “My guess is they’ve essentially calculated their best chance of survival is to bend in the wind.”

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