Every four years more than 40,000 Boy Scouts and their leaders hold a National Jamboree. This year they are scheduled to gather in July at the new Summit Bechtel Reserve in West Virginia. They’ll pitch tents, hike, tie knots, trade patches, and raise their right hands to affirm: “On my honor, I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country, to obey the Scout law, to help other people at all times, and to keep myself physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight.”
But the pastoral scene will belie a crisis in the Boy Scouts of America (BSA), one related to that oath. What is “duty to God”? What does it mean to be “morally straight”? On April 19, the national BSA leadership announced a proposed change to its current policy of banning openly homosexual men and boys from participating in Scouting. The proposed policy would walk a tightrope by banning homosexual adult leaders but welcoming boys who identify as gay, while affirming that “Scouting is a youth program, and any sexual conduct, whether homosexual or heterosexual, by youth of Scouting age is contrary to the virtues of Scouting.”
If BSA adopts and firmly adheres to that policy, the great number of 17-year-old boys who dream of having sex with girls in their class, and the lesser number with homosexual inclinations, will both know that their inclinations are inconsistent with “duty to God’ and being “morally straight.” The proposed policy emerged after an on-line BSA survey garnered more than 200,000 responses, with most supporting the current policy of excluding homosexuals from leadership, but most also wanting the program to admit boys who define themselves as gay. Fervent debate over the proposal, though, shows neither proponents nor opponents of homosexuality satisfied with it.
The website of GLAAD (formerly the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) assesses the policies on gay members of five youth organizations: Boys and Girls Club, Girl Scouts of the USA, 4-H Club, Camp Fire USA, and Boy Scouts of America. GLAAD gives “badges of equality” to the first four, but a big “No” to BSA. The Boy Scouts may be the most iconic American secular institution to have held the line against pro-gay political, legal, and financial pressures, and groups on the homosexual side will not settle for anything less than a declaration that they are morally straight.
Meanwhile, many conservatives are jostling the BSA tightrope. John Stemberger, founder of the group OnMyHonor.Net, attacks the proposed policy as a “cleverly worded resolution [that] creates a myriad of problems for how to manage and ensure the safety and security of the boys in the program.” Andrew Walker of the Heritage Foundation says the BSA is displaying “willed naivete on this issue, a belief that this proposal de-politicizes the issue.” He argues that “incrementalism is a key strategy of activists seeking to promote new norms involving homosexuality.”
Steve Onxley, an adult leader of Troop 413 in Charlotte, N.C., is also an elder of Christ Covenant Church, which sponsors Troop 413. Christ Covenant requires Scout leaders to affirm the Apostle’s Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer. One of Onxley’s tasks is to approve potential leaders, and he says of the proposed rule change, “No way this will work.” One big reason: Troops have adult leaders but in practice are Scout-led organizations in which adult leaders “coach” older boys who are the real leaders of the troop.
Onxley agrees with the resolution’s affirmation that sexual conduct by Scouts, whether homosexual or heterosexual, is inappropriate, but he says the proposal makes homosexuality and heterosexuality morally equivalent for Scouts, and that’s wrong: “Homosexual behavior is wrong for both boys and men.” He also notes that the policy leaves key questions unanswered: How do Scouts deal with an adulterous Scout leader, or a teenage Scout who brags about having sex with his girlfriend? (In Onxley’s troop such violations of biblical norms are grounds for dismissal.)
Scouting elicits such strong emotions from both sides in part because both sides see Scouting as a great American civic institution that trains national leaders. Alvin Townley, author of two books about Scouting, calls it “the only organization that has been able to bring together so many from so many different backgrounds over such a long period of time.” Townley, National Scouting Spokesperson for the United Methodist Church, says the “big tent” aspect of Scouting has been an important part of its influence, and that’s why he favors the new proposal.
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.
The Scouts divide geographically into about 300 local councils. They have their own professional leadership and budgets, run their own Scout camps, and do their own fundraising. Representatives from both the denominations and the councils will be among about 1,400 delegates who will vote on the new proposal on May 22 or 23 at a gathering near BSA headquarters in Irving, Texas.
Southern Baptist churches operate more than 3,000 units and serve nearly 100,000 Scouts. Frank Page, an Eagle Scout and former president of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), predicts the proposed rule change will fail, but if it passes he says the SBC will take immediate action, beginning with a resolution “expressing condemnation” at June’s SBC annual meeting. “Southern Baptist churches are independent,” he said, “but to be a Southern Baptist church you can’t affirm or condone homosexuality, so I’m sure many of our churches will pull out of Scouting.”
On an April 19 conference call with BSA officials, Page told CEO Wayne Brock, “If this move is an attempt to reach more boys, you are shooting yourselves in the foot. You’re listening to the wrong people.” Because of the governance structure of Scouting, BSA’s professional leadership could implement the rule change even if the vote goes against it, but Page says Brock “gave me his word he would abide by the vote.”
Conservatives suspect the rule change, if affirmed, is only the first step in a gay BSA agenda. James Dale lost his Supreme Court case, but he’s now 42 and giving “diversity lectures” at universities like Harvard and Yale and corporations like Microsoft and Verizon. Dale, attacking the proposal and “BSA’s homophobia,” says “there can be no halfway.” That leads Family Research Council (FRC) head Tony Perkins to say, “On its surface the proposal to allow openly homosexual boys could be seen as having merit, [but] membership criteria would be just the first change. … An admission policy change of this nature, centered around sexuality, would necessitate changes in Scouting curriculum and training for Scout leaders.”
FRC and other groups planned to hold a live webcast on what they called “Stand With Scouts Sunday,” May 5, to mobilize conservative and Christian scouting families regarding the implications of the decision. The SBC’s Frank Page argues that a defeat of the proposal will put the Scouts in a stronger position to “defend biblical morality for both men and boys.” He noted the importance of Christians not just being “against homosexuality, but for biblical standards generally, which would include setting a high bar for heterosexual behavior as well.”