Boy Scouts Lift Gay Leader Ban Nationally and Punt to Locals

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July 27, 2015; Washington Post

By a 79 percent majority, the executive committee of Boy Scouts of America yesterday lifted its ban on openly gay adults as leaders in scouting yet stopped short of directing local chapters to do the same, leaving it up to them whether to discriminate or not. In so doing, it passed along legal liability from the national organization to any local entities that choose to keep the ban in effect. Further, the Boy Scouts’ national organization declared it would defend any local scouting group’s “good faith refusal” of a scouting leader that violates the group’s religious principles.

Approximately 70 percent of Boy Scout troops are sponsored by religious organizations, some of which will refuse, and it is unclear what form that refusal will take. Soon after the decision was made, for instance, the Mormon Church declared in a statement that its “century-long association with Scouting would need to be examined.” Florida lawyer John Stemberger, who founded a spin-off called Trail Life USA after the 2013 vote to admit gay Scouts, said repealing the national ban on gay scout leaders, “places the churches and religious institutions who sponsor BSA troops at greater legal risk.” Will other local troops join Stemberger or stay in a network that does not share a core belief? Will future BSA jamborees have segregated spaces where one can or must not be gay?

The vote today was not unexpected by those in the know. Former defense secretary Robert Gates said in a speech back in April that the legal environment was such that maintaining the ban at the national level would result in unsustainability.

Advocates were understandably measured in their responses to the announcement. Zach Wahls, who is an Eagle Scout and executive director of Scouts for Equality, called the fact that so many faith-based troops may continue to ban openly-gay leaders “disconcerting.”

“Scouting is a place to hone important life skills and a moral compass,” Wahls said. “And that should not be sullied by discrimination, I think that’s really self-evident.”

Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), an LGBT civil rights organization, made his comments in a statement:

“Today’s vote by the Boy Scouts of America to allow gay, lesbian and bisexual adults to work and volunteer is a welcome step toward erasing a stain on this important organization.  But including an exemption for troops sponsored by religious organizations undermines and diminishes the historic nature of today’s decision. 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 that does not allow discrimination against anyone because of who they are.”

To NPQ, this step does not appear to be a strategy with permanent legs but rather a step that will be followed in due course by other incremental steps into the 21st century. Perhaps the form in which the BSA will survive will be very different. There may have been no simple way to tear the Band-Aid off, but the likely result is a great deal of fractionalization in the ranks and a whole mess of lawsuits that will distract the organization from its work.—Ruth McCambridge