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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.

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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.)

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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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