The Boy Scout of America on Monday voted to lift the longtime ban on gay troop leaders after years of fraught debate that has divided the 105-year-old organization.
"For far too long this issue has divided and distracted us," the BSA's president, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, told the Associated Press. "Now it's time to unite behind our shared belief in the extraordinary power of Scouting to be a force for good."
In recognition of the large number of Scout troops sponsored by religious institutions, the repeal of the organization-wide ban does not require individual troops to permit gay leaders. That stipulation has irked gay rights activists and provided little consolation for religious groups opposed to the change.
“You’ve got a highly divided organization,” Richard Ellis, a political science professor at Willamette University in Salem, Ore., and the author of “Judging the Boy Scouts of America,” told The Christian Science Monitor. “Now it’s not clear that even this solution, which is an attempt to get the [gay rights] issue out of the way, can do it, because nobody is happy with it.”
The Church Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints – which sponsors the largest number of scout units by far, and which continues to maintain a traditional definition of marriage and restricts the full participation of gay and lesbian members in church activities and leadership – said it was "deeply troubled" by the decision. Church officials suggested they would look into the possibility of forming their own organization to replace Boy Scouts.
"The admission of openly gay leaders is inconsistent with the doctrines of the Church and what have traditionally been the values of the Boy Scouts of America," said a statement from Mormon headquarters in Salt Lake City.
While many gay rights activists see the decision as just a partial victory, Scouts for Equality, the national organization that has been on the forefront campaigning against discrimination in the Boy Scouts of America is celebrating the move as the beginning of a new chapter for the boys organization.
“Tens of thousands of people came together because they wanted to build a better future for the Boy Scouts of America, and that future starts now,” said Zach Wahls, the executive director of Scouts for Equality said in a statement. "As of this vote, the Boy Scouts of America is an organization that is looking forward, not back."
Earlier this year, the Boy Scouts’ Greater New York Councils, which include a host of Catholic parish sponsors throughout the city, hired Pascal Tessier, an openly gay 18-year-old Eagle Scout, who has been outspoken in opposing the ban on adult leaders, the Christian Science Monitor reported.
More than 70 percent of chartered Boy Scout units are sponsored by churches and other religious groups, with Mormon and Methodist churches hosting the vast majority of its packs and troops.
The rapidly changing landscape around gay rights has been hard for evangelical groups to adjust to, Matthew Vine, author of “God and the Gay Christian” and founder of the Reformation Project, which works to make Christian institutions more welcoming toward the LGBT community, told the Monitor. “The foundation is being laid for a long-term change,” he says. “Change doesn’t come from the top down, it comes from the bottom up,” Vine said.
This report includes material from the Associated Press.