The decision by the Boy Scouts of America to stop seeing homosexuality as a moral failing and accept gay boys raises an important question for troops from Sheboygan to Atlanta: Will Cub Scouts and Eagle Scouts exodus en masse, and, if so, to where?
The wrenched decision by an organization founded in 1910 on quasi-military and Christian values came after months of debate and member polling, and the final vote looked much like America's general feeling on gay rights: Sixty percent supported the decision, which does not extend to gay adults. But the minority 40 percent may have stronger feelings, fueling a potential search for a new "character" organization for boys.
That debate had already begun this weekend in places like northern Virginia, where the Arlington Catholic Diocese is "prayerfully considering" leaving the Boy Scouts, as Bishop Paul Loverde told The Washington Post.
Boy Scout troops are sponsored by third-party groups, the majority of which are churches. About 110 million Americans have been Boy Scouts since the organization was founded as part of the international Scout movement. In the 1980s, the organization went through a series of sex abuse scandals, and last year it was forced to release 20,000 pages of internal documentation of some 1,200 sex abuse cases that took place between 1965 and 1985.
That background explains in large part why the Boy Scouts of America has struggled to repair its image, and why the organization voted to continue excluding gay leaders.
But that concession isn't enough for some critics of the decision, including some in Baptist churches, which sponsor more than 100,000 of the Boy Scouts' current 2.6 million members.
“Frankly, I can’t imagine a Southern Baptist pastor who would continue to allow his church to sponsor a Boy Scout troop under these new rules,” Richard Land, a senior Southern Baptist Conference official, said Friday in an interview with the Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention's news agency.
The Assemblies of God says that its own Royal Rangers youth group could be a "positive alternative" to the Boy Scouts under the new rule. The Royal Rangers, which have a similar skill-testing program as the Boy Scouts, has a stated purpose to "evangelize, equip and empower the next generation of Christlike men and lifelong servant leaders."
That push by some to leave the Boy Scouts – which, if it happens, will be felt when the policy takes effect at the beginning of 2014 – reveals a paradox of the long-awaited decision: By becoming more accepting, will membership be hurt or bolstered?
And that question seemed to undergird the internal debate, given that Boy Scouts membership under the old policy had fallen 27 percent since 1997. And the Boy Scouts aren't alone among religious and conservative organizations pushing back against past injustices. In order to stem membership dips, the Southern Baptist Convention last year elected its first black leader, the Rev. Fred Luter, in a major move for an organization that once backed segregation.
Some observers suggest the fallout may be milder than the rhetoric that preceded Friday's vote.
"I'm sure many [Scout] units will have meetings to decide what this means for them," Aaron Chusic, a spokesman for the National Capital Area Council of Scouts, told The Washington Post, but added that so far he had not heard from any group that has decided to leave.
The drive to allow gay boys came from deep within the organization itself, especially given that the Boy Scouts had the full legal right to say no. In 2000, the US Supreme Court upheld the Boy Scout policy, saying private organizations don't need to accept members or leaders in violation of their own moral creed, specifically a line in its bylaws that says that gay people should be excluded because they are not "morally straight."
Indeed, a deeper look at the Boy Scouts, which are highly decentralized into near-autonomous "units," is that the de facto acceptance of gay boys or gay families is a quiet fact in many troops, from rural Wyoming to the suburbs of Atlanta.
"I don't think it's going to impact Scouting because there are already gay members," Melanie Mork, the mother of Alex Mork in Wyoming's Troop 101, told the Wyoming News on Friday. "Young men have come out and said, ‘I am gay and I’m a Scout,’ and it didn’t impact their ability to become an Eagle Scout. And I think we’ll hear more of those types of stories as they become free to do that under this change.”