ORLANDO, Fla. — A proposal that would allow local Boy Scout troops to decide whether to accept gay Scouts and leaders could mean that Scouting will one day reflect the pockets of acceptance and bulwarks of resistance to gay rights seen nationwide.
Just as there are states that ban gay marriage and states that legalize it, there would be Scout troops with openly gay members and troops without.
“A family will have the option that they can find a troop that is gay-friendly. There might not be many, but more than they have now,” said Randy Stephens, executive director of The Center, Orlando’s gay-community organization.
Some churches and other faith-based organizations, which sponsor 70 percent of Scout troops, would have a choice for the first time about whether to allow or bar gays based on the tenets of their faith. Instead of a one-size-fits-all national policy, there would be a custom-tailored approach at the local level.
The Boy Scouts’ discussion of the role of gays in Scouting is the first review of the policy in a decade. One proposal under consideration would remove the prohibition against “open or avowed homosexuals” as troop members and Scout leaders.
The Scouts instituted the ban in 1978 and in 2002 reaffirmed the policy, which the organization said was in line with its moral values.
The Boy Scouts of America was supposed to make its decision Wednesday, but postponed it to allow more time for consultations and deliberation. Possible changes in the policy will not be voted on until the organization’s annual meeting in May, the national executive board said.
Gay-accepting denominations, including the United Church of Christ, contend that the national policy violates their religious beliefs.
“Several religious organizations have told us their beliefs are different than the national policy,” said Orlando attorney Tico Perez, national coordinator for the Boy Scouts of America. “Several councils in the Northeast and Northwest have told us their community values are not reflected in that policy.”
The Boy Scouts, which won a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2000 that affirmed their right to exclude gays, have been under mounting pressure to change their policy toward gay Scouts and troop leaders. In recent years, the organization has lost financial support from some United Way agencies, UPS, CVS pharmacies, Intel Foundation and other groups that say the gay ban violates their nondiscrimination policies.
The fact that the Boy Scouts are even talking about dropping their gay ban reflects a cultural change sweeping across the nation toward more tolerance and acceptance of homosexuality, said David Swanson, senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Orlando, which broke away from the Presbyterian Church (USA) last year over the local church’s opposition to the ordination of gay ministers, deacons and elders.
“The Boy Scouts are a social organization, not a religious organization. They reflect the cultural shift we are seeing in the United States and Western Europe that has greater acceptance of that lifestyle,” said Swanson, whose church sponsors Troop 24, the oldest continuously chartered Boy Scout troop in the Central Florida Council.
In practical terms, charter organizations often have little to do with the Scout troops they sponsor other than providing them a place to meet, several Scout leaders said. And for that reason, Swanson said, churches officials and troop leaders will need to have deliberate discussions about being on the same page regarding religious beliefs, gays and Scouting.
Local troops and their charter organizations have always been where the true power of Scouting resides, said Ed Calish, whose organization, the Children of Abraham Foundation, sponsors Troop 641, the only troop in Central Florida chartered by a Jewish organization.
It’s the local troops and their sponsors that set the rules and regulations, screen adult leaders, recruit the kids and carry out the fundamentals of Scouting. So, while policy might change on the national level, on the ground level there may be little difference.
“Probably 90 percent of all charter organizations aren’t going to make any change in how they see things,” Calish said.
A monumental shift such as the Boy Scouts dropping its ban against gays may not change things very much at all, Perez said. Adults may argue their differences, but what Boy Scouts do is what Boy Scouts have always done: get outdoors, go camping, hike, earn merit badges and do good deeds.
“Kids are kids. The things they do are climb on rocks and play with sticks.”