Boy Scouts allow gay Scouts, but leave ban on gay leaders in place

The Boy Scouts of America voted to lift a ban on gay Scouts, but critics say a decision to maintain a ban on gay Scout leaders sends a mixed message and leaves the issue unsettled.

Mel Evans/AP/File
Boy Scouts salute during New Jersey's Boy Scouts Camporee in Sea Girt, N.J., in this file photo. The Boy Scouts of America's National Council has voted to ease a longstanding ban and allow openly gay boys to be accepted as Scouts.

The Boy Scouts of America voted Thursday to approve the admission of openly gay youth members but left in place a ban on homosexual adult Scout leaders, raising the prospect of gay Scouts having to leave the group when they become adults. 

The decision was backed by key religious groups, including the Southern Baptist Convention and the Anglican Church of North America. Nearly 70 percent of the Boy Scouts' 116,000 local chapters are in churches or other faith-based organizations.

But critics worried that the decision was sending a mixed message and that the new policy, intended to bring some modicum of steadiness to an organization in transition, will fail to settle the issue.

“Today, following this review, the most comprehensive listening exercise in Scouting’s history, the ... Boy Scouts of America’s National Council approved a resolution to remove the restriction denying membership to youth on the basis of sexual orientation alone," the organization said in a statement. "The resolution also reinforces that Scouting is a youth program, and any sexual conduct, whether heterosexual or homosexual, by youth of Scouting age is contrary to the virtues of Scouting. A change to the current membership policy for adult leaders was not under consideration; thus, the policy for adults remains in place."

The measure passed with the support of 68 percent of the 1,400 delegates at the BSA national conference in Grapevine, Texas. It will affect BSA’s 2.7 million Scouts and 1 million volunteers beginning in January 2014.

The move changes the organization’s current policy, in which no one is asked about his sexual orientation but “open or avowed homosexuals” cannot be members, leaders, volunteers, or employees. The policy – instituted in 1978 and reaffirmed in 2002 – was upheld by a 2000 US Supreme Court ruling (BSA v. Dale).

Thusday's meeting, which featured an open mike for delegates, was extremely charged and 3 of every 4 speakers were for expanding the policy on gays, says Alan Snyder, chairman of the board for the Western Los Angeles County Boy Scout Council, who was at the event.

He says two testimonies, in particular, made big impressions.

In one, some very shy boys took the mike, trembling, and said, “We are the youngest people in the room, and we want to remind you that the BSA is for kids,” Mr. Snyder recounts. In another, an older man said, according to Snyder, “If I am Jewish, which I am, do I worry that a Catholic boy is going to try to convert my son to Catholicism? Of course not.”

Thursday’s vote was originally scheduled for February, but BSA leadership decided the organization needed more time to think about the issue.

Critics took issue with the decision to keep the ban on homosexual adults in place.

"Willingness to change is wonderful, but they are terribly misguided in this,” says John O’Connor, executive director of Equality California. He says the Boy Scouts “is about leadership … and leadership embraces diversity. What does it say to a kid to tell him, 'You can be part of this for now, but the moment you turn 18 you are not allowed to be part of this, you are different'.… It teaches others to discriminate against them.”

Andrew Koppelman, coauthor of "A Right to Discriminate? How the Case of Boy Scouts of America v. James Dale Warped the Law of Free Association," calls the compromise "weird and unstable." "Clearly there is stronger opposition to gay Scoutmasters than to gay Scouts, and this vote reflects that,” he says.

Asked why the BSA did not lift the ban on openly gay Scout leaders, the organization said in an e-mail to the Monitor:

“The review confirmed that this issue remains among the most complex and challenging issues facing the BSA and society today. Even with the wide range of input, it was extremely difficult to accurately quantify the potential impact of maintaining or changing the current policy. While perspectives and opinions vary significantly, parents, adults in the Scouting community, and teens alike tend to agree that youth should not be denied the benefits of Scouting.”

Considering the depth of feeling on all sides, a better course might have been to allow individual troops to make decisions rather than to have one national policy, says Linda McClain, a professor at Boston University School of Law.

“It is a shame that the option of letting individual Scout troops decide for themselves was not pursued,” she says. Even though both sides would have considered it a compromise of principle, “this compromise, in light of internal division within the BSA, would have allowed different troops to make their own choices.”

"It is likely there would be considerable variation among the Scout troops, based on region, sponsor, and the like,” she adds.

She says Thursday's decision could open the door to more steps in the future.

“It is striking to consider that the younger generation, generally, is far more accepting of homosexuality and of laws allowing a same-sex couple to marry,” says Professor McClain. “This is true even among religious young people. Some will probably conclude that it is only a matter of time before this generational shift in attitudes is reflected in the BSA leadership. “

BSA delegate Snyder said he was heartened after the vote when he met a group of Scout leaders from Tucson, Ariz., who said they voted against lifting the ban. “But they said, 'We’re glad it’s done, and we’re back to working on Scouting tomorrow.' ”

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