The Boy Scouts of America, facing litigation, shrinking membership and sweeping acceptance of gay rights, voted Monday to lift its ban on openly gay troop leaders and employees.
The national organization will no longer allow discrimination against its paid workers or at BSA-owned facilities. But local troops and councils will be permitted to decide for themselves whether they will allow openly gay volunteer leaders.
The executive board’s vote was taken at the suggestion of the group’s president, former defense secretary Robert Gates, who noted that the Scouts are facing potential lawsuits by gay adults who were shut out of positions. But church-state legal experts said the decision will likely just shift the controversy and legal battles from the national group to local troops and councils as volunteers barred from participating file suit.
“It’s changing the target [of litigation] because now it will be all about the local, not the national,” said Douglas Laycock, a prominent religious liberty scholar at the University of Virginia. “It changes the dynamic a lot. It makes it more informal, less visible.”
Gay equality advocates praised the measure as a start.
“This was a very important and difficult change for such an organization,” said Josh Schiller, an attorney representing Yasmin Cassini, a lesbian in Colorado who was hired to run a Scout center but then lost the job when she came out. Schiller is working pro bono with other high-profile lawyers to fight the Scout ban. “I definitely think it’s the beginning of building inclusive programs…It’s halfway where we want to be.”
The vote comes two years after the BSA lifted its ban on openly gay youth, a dramatic step for an organization whose leaders went to the Supreme Court to fight accepting openly gay members. Some 70 percent of Boy Scout troops are run by faith-based groups, many from orthodox communities including Mormons, Catholics, Southern Baptists and Muslims who do not accept gay equality.
But the march toward full equality for gay and lesbian Americans has unfolded with unusual speed, with 25 states accepting gay marriage in 2013 and 2014 before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June that the Constitution guarantees a right to same-sex marriage. Polls have shown acceptance of gay equality rising sharply among the young. Meanwhile, the Boy Scouts experienced a 7 percent drop in membership since lifting its ban on openly gay youth.
Scouts’ smaller executive committee, whose members serve on the larger executive board, voted unanimously earlier this month to permit openly gay adults to serve as leaders.
The new rules approved Monday allow troops chartered by a religious organization — including churches, mosques and synagogues — to discriminate, and to “continue to choose adult leaders whose beliefs are consistent with their own,” said the Scouts’ statement earlier this month.
Laycock said it’s not clear what will happen over the long-term in court. No states, he said, have bans on discriminating against gay people for volunteers. And about half the states do not have employment discrimination bans.
It’s also unclear how these changes will play out in the years to come, as some conservative leaders say like-minded troops are moving away from the Scouts. Roger Oldham, a spokesman for the Southern Baptist Convention, said traditional groups are braced for the possibility that soon, even church-based groups will be required to fully accept gay leaders.
“The next step, which may be a year or two down the road, seems obvious to us,” Oldham wrote. Traditional 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,” he said.
The Mormon Church, the largest group in scouting, and the Catholic Church have issued statements since 2013 affirming their desire to stay in Scouting — so long as they can continue to select leaders who reflect their teachings.
Zach Wahls, who is an Eagle Scout, a son of lesbian parents and executive director of the advocacy group Scouts for Equality, said Monday’s vote will mean a “sigh of relief” for gay summer camp counselors or other adult volunteers who want to work with troops.
Wahls, however, 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. And that should not be sullied by discrimination, I think that’s really self-evident.”
The benefits of Scouting are significant and the program should be kept healthy, he said.
“Even though this ban is in place, there are a lot of gay youth [in it.] That should tell you a lot about the program.”
Brian Peffly, a 35-year-old lifetime Scout who the Boy Scouts pushed out earlier this year — citing his violation of the ban — said Monday he had mixed feelings about the potential change. He is glad the organization is becoming more open, but officials are making clear they are doing so because they have no other choice.
“Those words don’t make me feel warm and fuzzy and like I want to run back and join,” said Peffly.
Peffly said the group hasn’t gone far enough by not apologizing to people denied opportunities because of their sexual orientation.
“I think what they owe me is a formal apology, but I think I probably I will go my entire life and they never will apologize. So what I’ve been thinking is, should I just wait the rest of my life, and if I don’t get one, never be involved with Scouting? I have to keep telling myself, the whole goal is to save Boy Scouts. We want to continue to exist in the future and in order to do that, people like me need to be at the table,” he said.
Source: Washington Post