Cover Story

Scouts in the balance

"Scouts in the balance" Continued...

Issue: "Boy Scout dilemma," May 18, 2013

He’s right about the history: Since its founding in 1910 the BSA has pitched a big tent indeed, with more than 100 million men and boys participating over 103 years. Membership has been in a slow decline since the 1960s, when rolls topped 5 million, but the Scouts still have nearly 2.7 million youth members and almost 1 million adult leaders. In 2012, about 57,000 boys attained Eagle rank, Scouting’s highest. President Gerald Ford, department store magnate Sam Walton, and Senators Thad Cochran, Mike Lee, Jeff Sessions, and Pat Toomey are among the 2 million who have earned the badge.

Every Scout must perform service projects, and Eagle Scouts must plan and lead a major project that is “helpful to any religious institution, any school, or your community.” Scouts learn about democracy as they make group plans for cookouts, hikes, and camping trips, and this debate about homosexuality is teaching some lessons about planning: BSA did not choose to be on the front lines of this culture war, but atheist and homosexual groups brought the battle to it, with big financial repercussions. 

The atheist attack came first. BSA started in 1981 holding its quadrennial National Scout Jamboree at Ft. A.P. Hill in Virginia. Many Scout troops met at military posts. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) argued that use of military facilities by an organization requiring “duty to God” amounted to a First Amendment–violating establishment of religion.

The ACLU eventually forced more than 400 Scout units off military posts. Most found other sponsoring organizations—often churches—but legal bills mounted, and the use of Ft. A.P. Hill was in jeopardy every four years. BSA continued to do well financially, with assets of the nonprofit organization approaching $1 billion in 2007, and financial surpluses in some years topping $40 million. In 2009 the organization bought a 10,600-acre tract in West Virginia with the help of a $50 million gift from Stephen Bechtel, an Eagle Scout whose grandfather founded the Bechtel Corporation, the world’s largest engineering firm. It looked like the Jamboree site problems were taken care of.

Not exactly. Despite Bechtel’s gift—and others that totaled at least $85 million—the development of Summit Bechtel Reserve went way over budget, with costs ballooning from about $150 million to about $500 million, according to a former member of BSA’s executive committee. Scout spokesman Deron Smith would neither confirm nor deny these numbers, saying that “there was never a set number” for what the final investment would be. That overrun forced the Scouts to take on debt to keep construction on schedule for this summer’s Jamboree. Meanwhile, BSA’s investment portfolio lost more than $173 million in the stock market decline of 2008, and losses continued: BSA’s 2011 Form 990 (the latest available) reported that net assets fell by about $37 million.

This year some of the original bonds and bills related to Summit are coming due, and the national office is scrambling to find cash. Layoffs have dramatically reduced the staff and left an entire floor of the BSA’s national headquarters empty. The Scouts are not broke—one of the Scout laws is “A Scout is thrifty”—and BSA spokesman Deron Smith says, “The National Council of the BSA is in a strong financial position.” But Scouting could use some big corporate donors, and corporations don’t want to alienate some of their customers.

Enter the battle over homosexuality, which began in 1990 when James Dale, an Eagle Scout who became an Assistant Scoutmaster, announced himself as gay. BSA officials kicked him out and he kicked back with a lawsuit that went to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court in 2000 decided 5-4 in BSA’s favor, but the organization spent millions for legal fees. Ever since then homosexual leaders have ratcheted up the emotional and financial pressure, with support from some mainline churches and corporate backers.  

The Boy Scouts have a byzantine organizational structure. All Scout units—more than 100,000 of them—have chartered organizations. Part of the genius of the Scouting movement is that these chartered organizations are the “owners and operators” of these units, not just by providing meeting space, but by approving the units’ leaders. More than 70 percent of these chartered organizations are churches. United Methodist, Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, Lutheran, and Southern Baptist churches combine for nearly 30,000 units and nearly 1 million Scouts. 

Mormons, who have used the Boy Scouts as their primary youth program for most of the BSA’s history, have more than 37,000 units and 430,000 youth in the program, plus—since the average size of a Mormon unit is only about 12 boys—almost as many adult leaders. That’s about 25 percent of BSA members, so it’s significant that the Mormon Church on April 25 released a statement mildly in favor of the new proposal. 

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