Boy Scouts committee votes to end ban on gay Scout leaders

But the resolution allows religious chartering partners to continue to discriminate against gay adults, in a bid to avoid 'placing Scouting between a boy and his church.'  

Mark Zaleski/File/AP
Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates addresses the Boy Scouts of America's annual meeting in Nashville, Tenn., on May 23, 2014, after being selected as the organization's new president. In an emphatic speech in May, Mr. Gates said that the longstanding ban on participation by openly gay adults was no longer sustainable.

The Boy Scouts of America executive committee voted to end the ban on gay Scout leaders on the heels of the landmark US Supreme Court case that legalized same-sex marriage.

“This resolution will allow chartered organizations to select adult leaders without regard to sexual orientation, continuing Scouting’s longstanding policy of chartered organizations selecting their leaders,” the BSA said in a statement Monday after the vote. 

After years of acrimonious debate, in 2013 the Boy Scouts allowed openly gay Scouts to participate in the organization, overturning a precedent that had existed since the group’s inception. But at the time, that option was not extended to openly gay adult members who wished to serve as Scoutmasters or troop leaders.

One reason for the protracted dispute was the organization’s deep religious ties. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, commonly known as the Mormon Church, was the first partner to sponsor Scouting in the United States. Additionally, roughly 70 percent of Scout units are sponsored by churches.

Earlier this year, BSA president Robert Gates, a former US secretary of Defense, called on the organization to reexamine its ban on gay troop leaders in a speech at the group's national annual meeting.

“We must deal with the world as it is, not as we might wish it to be. The status quo in our movement’s membership standards cannot be sustained,” said Mr. Gates, a lifelong member of the Scouts.

In his remarks, Gates noted the rapidly changing landscape of public opinion when it came to LGBT rights, and he pointed to individual troops within the organization that had chosen openly gay leaders in defiance of national rules.

“As a movement, we find ourselves with a policy more than a few of our church sponsors reject – thus placing Scouting between a boy and his church,” he said in his speech in May. “The one thing we cannot do is put our heads in the sand and pretend this challenge will go away or abate.”

The ability of the BSA to bar allow openly gay troop leaders stems from the 2000 Supreme Court case of Boy Scouts of America v. Dale, in which the court upheld the right of the organization to exclude a person from membership when "the presence of that person affects in a significant way the group's ability to advocate public or private viewpoints."

However, in the 15 years since that decision, legal precedent has swung the other way.

A legal memo prepared by the law firm Hughes Hubbard & Reed recommends that the BSA’s best method to protect religious freedom within the organization would be to “affirm that religious chartered organizations have the right under the law and the BSA’s policies to select adult leaders based on their religious beliefs.”

Zach Wahls, an Eagle Scout who heads the advocacy group Scouts for Equality, said the organization's recent vote represents a major step forward for the BSA.

"While this policy change is not perfect – BSA's religious chartering partners will be allowed to continue to discriminate against gay adults – it is difficult to overstate the importance of today's announcement," Mr. Wahls said in a statement.

On July 27, the 80-member national executive board will choose whether to ratify the decision. 

The BSA, a 105-year-old group, is one of the largest youth organizations in the United States, with an estimated 2.6 million youth members and 1 million adult volunteers. It provides outdoor activities, educational programs, and community service opportunities to young men and boys.

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