Churches grapple with whether to cut Boy Scout ties

Churches are huge sponsors of Boy Scout troops, which is what made the debate over the new policy on gay boys so difficult. Churches are split on whether to abandon the scouts.

Mel Evans/AP/File
Boy Scouts salute during New Jersey's Boy Scouts Camporee in Sea Girt, N.J., May 2011. The Boy Scouts of America's National Council voted at their annual meeting in Texas on May 23 to ease a long-standing ban and allow openly gay boys to be accepted as scouts.

Religious groups sponsor nearly 70 percent of Boy Scout troops nationwide. But the reaction among these groups was as diverse as the congregations themselves when the Boy Scouts of America recently voted to allow openly gay boys to join.

Many members of Evangelical and Baptist groups say their affiliation with the BSA is over.

“We believe that the BSA policy change will lead to a mass exodus from the Boy Scout program, as Assemblies of God and many other churches can no longer support groups that are part of an organization allowing members who are openly homosexual,” the Pentecostal denomination stated, after nearly two-thirds of the 1,400 BSA voters affirmed the new policy on May 23.

While the National Catholic Committee on Scouting issued no immediate position, with plans to confer with bishops and diocesan scouting committees, it also stated: “Open and avowed homosexuals promoting and engaging in homosexual conduct are not living lives consistent with Catholic teaching.”

By contrast, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the single largest sponsor – behind nearly a third of the troops nationwide – deferred to its existing guidelines, saying, “Young men … who agree to abide by Church standards” are “welcomed warmly and encouraged to participate.”

The Mormon church, which had not campaigned for or against lifting the ban, said in a statement: "We have followed the discussion and are satisfied that BSA has made a thoughtful, good-faith effort to address issues that, as they have said, remain ‘among the most complex and challenging issues facing the BSA and society today.’ "

Other religious organizations, such as the National Jewish Committee on Scouting, the Unitarian Universalist Association, the Episcopal Church, and the United Church of Christ campaigned for a full repeal of the ban.

“There is a great deal of rhetoric and concern being expressed in church-based scout troops right now,” says William Leonard, professor of church history at Wake Forest University, “but how that washes out we still don’t know, and it will take a while for these communities to sort this out.”

In the short term, he says, the congregations that close down scout troops will depend on location and ethos. “There will be some congregations where the membership will insist we have to break with the BSA, and there will be some that exist in locations where they will feel pressured to drop their troops,” he says.

Some effort will be made to offer alternatives, he notes, but such efforts could be limited and difficult for churches because the churches are not in financial shape to start anything as elaborate and significant as the Boy Scouts.

The issue is close to the heart of Daniel Echols, the associate pastor at St. John’s United Methodist Church in Lubbock, Texas. While the national leadership has not taken a stand on the BSA decision, it does not allow church officials to conduct same-sex marriages, nor does it ordain homosexual clergy. But, says Echols, the church has sponsored local Scout Troop 406 for some 30 years, and the congregation supports the new policy.

“Our culture is going through a transition around the issue of homosexuality toward an affirming position,” he says, and the church cannot ignore this change.

While the more vocal church leaders may oppose the change, the shift is apparent among young Evangelicals, says Tom Krattenmaker, author of the new book "The Evangelicals You Don't Know." The question many of the new leaders are asking is different from their elders in the church, he says. “It is no longer, ‘Is homosexuality OK?' ” he says, but rather, " 'What am I called upon to do?' They are saying, 'As a Christian, I am called upon to love my fellow human beings?' ”

Whatever course churches choose as this new BSA policy goes into effect on Jan. 1, 2014, the response has larger implications for religious organizations across the political and denominational spectrum, says Professor Leonard, who points to the rapidly growing segment of the US population that no longer identifies with any church denomination.

A 2012 Pew Research study shows that while one-fifth of the US population claims no religious affiliation, one-third of 18-to 35-year-olds no longer identify with any organized church.

Churches have some soul-searching to do as they take actions that send messages about their willingness to engage with the upcoming generation, Leonard says. “Many churches see this issue as drawing an important line in the sand about their basic convictions,” he says. 

At issue, he says, is how churches remain relevant amid broad societal change. “Churches are having to face the issue of their sense of Christian conscience and how that appears in the larger culture which is becoming more welcoming," he adds.

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