Boy Scouts Expected to End Ban on Gay Leaders
by Erik Eckholm of The New York Times
JULY 26, 2015
The Boy Scouts of America is expected on Monday to end its blanket ban on gay leaders â€” a turning point for an organization that has been in turmoil over the issue. But some scouting groups will still be able to limit leadership jobs to heterosexuals. To gain the acquiescence of conservative religious groups that sponsor many dens and troops, like the Mormon and Roman Catholic Churches, the policy will allow church-run units to pick leaders who agree with their moral precepts.
Already struggling to reverse a long-term decline in membership, the Boy Scouts have been increasingly consumed over the last two decades by battles over the exclusion of gay people, divisions that threatened to fracture the organization. Conservative partners saw the policy as a bulwark against unwanted social change, but the Boy Scoutsâ€™ anti-gay stance was costing it public support and cachet as well as corporate funders, and lately has brought on the threat of costly lawsuits.
In a contentious meeting in 2013, the Scouts decided to permit participation by gay youths but not adults. On Monday, bowing to still-accelerating shifts in opinion and law, the Scouts will relax their policy barring openly gay adults from serving as the den leaders, scoutmasters and camp counselors who are at the heart of the scouting experience. The Scouts will also on Monday bar discrimination based on sexual orientation in all official facilities and paying jobs across the country, heading off potential suits and violations of employment discrimination laws.
But to keep some of the larger church sponsors in the fold, Scout executives concluded that they must allow for diverse policies for local volunteers. Church-based units may â€ścontinue to choose adult leaders whose beliefs are consistent with their own,â€ť according to a statement that the Scoutsâ€™ top executives sent this month to regional board members. The step, if incomplete in the view of many gay rights campaigners, is nonetheless a momentous one for an organization that has struggled to keep the allegiance of conservatives as it faced open rebellion from more liberal regions.
The proposal follows a public warning in May by Robert M. Gates, the Scoutsâ€™ voluntary two-year president and a former defense secretary, that the ban on gay adults â€ścannot be sustained.â€ť The national governing board, which includes scores of corporate, civic and church leaders who share a devotion to scouting, is expected to provide overwhelming support for the resolution in a meeting to be conducted Monday by telephone.
With this latest change, Mr. Gates and other Scout executives hope to defuse an issue that has caused growing turmoil, even as membership â€” more than 2.4 million youths in 2014, with nearly a million adult volunteers â€” has steadily declined. Over time, the share of units sponsored by churches of all denominations has climbed to 70 percent, with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the United Methodists and the Roman Catholics accounting for the largest shares.
Mr. Gates has won praise for acting decisively to resolve a conflict that threatened to fracture the Boy Scouts. An Eagle Scout who ran the C.I.A. and who served as defense secretary under Republican and Democratic presidents, he oversaw the end of the militaryâ€™s â€śdonâ€™t ask, donâ€™t tellâ€ť policy on gay service in the military. â€śBecause of his history, he was in a position to exercise leadership on this issue,â€ť said Zach Wahls, 24, an Eagle Scout and executive director of Scouts for Equality, which has mounted public campaigns for change. â€śThe people in the Scouts trusted him to handle it well.â€ť
The Boy Scouts have a tortured history on gay rights, reflecting both the wider culture wars and the pull of regions and partners with conflicting views. In 2000, the Scoutsâ€™ exclusionary policy prevailed before the Supreme Court. In a 5-to-4 decision, the court said the Scouts had the right to force out a gay assistant scoutmaster because the private organizationâ€™s stance that homosexuality was not â€śmorally straightâ€ť was part of the groupâ€™s â€śexpressive message.â€ť
But the victory proved Pyrrhic. Many schools and public agencies severed their ties. At the same time, the share of religious sponsors climbed, and the Scouts began attracting more conservative families. In 2012, the group announced that it would retain the ban on gay members. But gay rights groups like Glaad and Scouts for Equality helped publicize cases of discrimination and push several major corporate donors, including Intel, United Parcel Service and Merck, to withdraw their support.
In 2013, the national leadership proposed what proved to be an illusory middle ground â€” to permit gay youths, a less sensitive issue with conservatives, but to continue to ban openly gay adults. The change was welcomed, but brought little peace. More corporate donors withdrew, and lawsuits claiming illegal discrimination under state laws were brewing that, the Scoutsâ€™ own lawyers concluded, the group was sure to lose.