Leaders of the Boy Scouts of America are meeting this week in Grapevine, Texas, to decide whether openly homosexual boys can participate in the group's programs.
At stake is whether the Boy Scouts will keep a policy that has been in place for its entire 103-year history. Critics of the policy change say it will have an irreversible and negative impact on the program. About 1,400 voting members of the BSA’s National Council will consider the measure Thursday.
The overwhelming majority of Scout units are sponsored, or “chartered,” by churches and other religious organizations. In the run-up to the vote, church leaders have weighed in on the controversy. Last week, top church and denominational leaders from Lutheran, Presbyterian, United Methodist, Anglican, Assemblies of God and other denominations signed a statement to “strongly support” the BSA’s current membership policy and oppose a resolution which would require all chartered scouting units to allow open homosexuality among boys in the organization but not among adults. The statement reads, in part:
“We strongly support the Boy Scouts of America current prohibition on open homosexuality and retaining it without revision. Nearly 70 percent of BSA troops are hosted by churches and religious institutions. Upholding traditional morality is vital for sustaining this partnership, for protecting Scout members, and for ensuring BSA has a strong future. A proposal from the BSA board to prohibit ‘discrimination’ based on ‘sexual orientation or preference’ for BSA members potentially would open the Scouts to a wide range of open sexual expressions. In our current culture, it’s more important than ever for our churches to protect and provide moral nurture for young people and for the Scouts. We implore members of the upcoming BSA Council to affirm the BSA’s present policy, which the U.S. Supreme Court has affirmed, and which has served BSA well.”
On the other hand, homosexual activists and some Scout leaders from politically liberal areas want the BSA to go further and lift the ban on gay adults as well. James Dale, an openly homosexual activist who sued the Boy Scouts to be an adult leader, taking his case to the U.S. Supreme Court before ultimately losing, also attacked the proposal. But his complaint is that it does not go far enough: “There can be no halfway,” he said.
The Scouts' national spokesman, Deron Smith, said the policy toward gays had become "the most complex and challenging issue" facing the BSA. Neither Smith nor OnMyHonor.Net’s John Stemberger would predict the outcome of the vote. According to Smith: "Ultimately we can't anticipate how people will vote, but we do know that the result will not match everyone's personal preference.”
If the vote reflects the will of the majority of Scouts and Scouters, it will fail. More than 200,000 people responded to an online survey on the question, and 61 percent supported the current policy.
Conservative groups including the Family Research Council and OnMyHonor.Net have mounted a national campaign to resist the change. Last Friday, OnMyHonor.Net organized rallies at the headquarters of about 40 of the 290 local Scout council offices around the country. The two groups also combined for "Stand With Scouts Sunday,” on May 5. Appearing on the webcast was Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who said, “For pop culture to come in and try to tear that up because this happens to be the flavor of the month … that is just not appropriate. I hope the American people stand up and say, 'Not on my watch.'" Jeremy Miller, a Scout leader from Ohio, said the proposed change "will open the door to boy-on-boy sexual contact, bullying and older Scouts being predators on younger scouts."
The BSA's national leaders have rejected such warnings as ill-founded, and they have been aggressive in promoting their case as well. "The BSA makes no connection between the sexual abuse or victimization of a child and homosexuality," a new background document says. "The BSA takes strong exception to this assertion." The BSA has hired conservative Christian activist Ralph Reed to help it reach out to evangelical leaders, although Reed himself has repeatedly maintained he is opposed to the policy change and is working with Boy Scout leadership only because of his long-term involvement in the Boy Scouts, and as a way to facilitate dialogue and understanding between opposing sides.
Frank Page, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Executive Committee, said the new proposal "is more acceptable to those who hold a biblical form of morality," but he nonetheless favors its defeat. "A No vote keeps the current policy in place, an outcome we would overwhelmingly support," Page told Baptist Press, the SBC's official news agency.
The Mormon Church announced in April that it supports the new proposal, saying the BSA made a good-faith effort to address a complex issue. The Mormons sponsor more Scout units than any other organization, serving about 430,000 of the 2.6 million youth in Scouting. Nonetheless, a survey of predominantly Mormon councils in Utah show opposition to the new proposal running as high as 80 percent.
Several regional Scout councils already have declared their position on the membership proposal. In Tennessee, the Nashville-based Middle Tennessee Council and Jackson-based West Tennessee Area Council said they oppose the proposed change and support the current broad ban on gay youth and adults. "We are continuing to uphold the standards, beliefs, and traditions Scouting has held for over 100 years," said Lee Beaman, board president of the Middle Tennessee Council, which says it serves 35,000 youth and adults.
If the proposal is approved, the new policy would take effect on Jan. 1, 2014. A task force already has been created to oversee its implementation.