The Boy Scouts of America lifted its ban on openly gay adult leaders on Monday, but will allow church-sponsored units to continue excluding gay individuals. The move is an effort to resolve an issue that has plagued the group since the ‘80s and ‘90s, when it began explicitly banning openly gay youths and adults. Two years ago, the Boy Scouts compromised by accepting openly gay minors while maintaining the ban on gay adults in paid or volunteer leadership roles. But this spring BSA’s president, former Defense secretary Robert Gates, said that position was no longer sustainable, as many states are passing laws that ban employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. As expected, BSA’s National Executive Board voted 45–12 on Monday to lift the ban.
Unlike other recent victories for gay rights, there was no celebratory language or discussion of expanding the freedoms of gay Americans. Rather, in a video statement, Gates explained that continuing to exclude gay adults “was inevitably going to result in simultaneous legal battles in multiple jurisdictions, and at staggering costs.” He added that the issue has “divided and distracted us” for too long, and “now it’s time to unite behind our shared belief in the extraordinary power of Scouting to be a force for good.”
But once again, neither side was satisfied by the compromise. Human Rights Campaign president Chad Griffin called the move “a welcome step,” but he added, “Discrimination should have no place in the Boy Scouts, period. BSA officials should now demonstrate true leadership and begin the process of considering a full national policy of inclusion.” And while religiously chartered units can “continue to use religious beliefs as a criterion for selecting adult leaders, including matters of sexuality,” some say they may cut their ties with the Boy Scouts to avoid the possibility of being forced to compromise their beliefs.
The most serious threat to the organization came from the Mormon Church, which sponsors the most units of any religion, accounting for 17 percent of youths in Scouting in 2013. Though the Mormon Church recently suggested it would go along with the change as long as it could pick its own leaders, on Monday the church said it’s “deeply troubled” by the new policy and will have to reconsider its relationship with BSA. “The Church has always welcomed all boys to its Scouting units regardless of sexual orientation,” church spokesman Eric Hawkins said in a statement. “However, the admission of openly gay leaders is inconsistent with the doctrines of the church and what have traditionally been the values of the Boy Scouts of America.”
Hawkins suggested it’s possible the Mormon Church will split with the Boy Scouts and form its own program for boys. “As a global organization with members in 170 countries, the church has long been evaluating the limitations that fully one-half of its youth face where Scouting is not available,” he said. “Those worldwide needs combined with this vote by the BSA National Executive Board will be carefully reviewed by the leaders of the church in the weeks ahead.”
The Christian Science Monitor notes that as a result of its ban on gay individuals, over the years BSA’s membership has grown more conservative, with about 70 percent of troops now run by religious organizations. Following the 2013 decision, some conservatives left the Boy Scouts and created the group Trail Life USA. BSA enrollment had been declining for some time, and it dropped by 6 percent in 2013 and 7 percent in 2014. About 2.4 million boys and 1 million adults are currently enrolled in the Boy Scouts.
Southern Baptist Convention spokesman Roger Oldham said that, like the Mormons, Baptists may be ready to abandon the Boy Scouts altogether instead of being forced to eventually accept gay leaders. “The next step, which may be a year or two down the road, seems obvious to us,” Oldham said, adding that conservative groups “are being put into a situation where they have to either compromise their conviction or choose to leave. And for those for whom Biblical sexual morality is a conviction they have no alternative.”