The Boy Scouts of America announced Monday that its Executive Council had voted unanimously to let local organizations select adult leaders without regard to sexual orientation, a move that would open the door to gay and bisexual troop leaders.
The decision gives each local troop the right to decide for itself whether to consider sexual orientation, allowing religious organizations to continue banning gay leaders and secular organizations to include them.
The group’s national executive board has yet to ratify the decision. It is scheduled to meet to do so July 27.
“We are thrilled that the national organization is moving in this direction,” Chuck Keathley, chief of the Scouts’ Greater Los Angeles Area Council, told The Times. “We’ve been long supporters of this change, and we look forward to having this behind us and being able to deliver on our mission.”
Robert Gates, Boy Scouts of America president, urged the organization to accept political shifts and make the change at its national meeting last May.
“I truly fear that any other alternative will be the end of us as a national movement,” said Gates, a former U.S. Defense secretary and CIA director.
The Boy Scouts of America resolved to accept gay Scouts in 2013.
The Executive Council vote, which took place Friday, would allow “scouting’s members and parents to select local units, chartered to organizations with similar beliefs, that best meet the needs of their families,” the group said in a statement.
“This change would also respect the right of religious chartered organizations to continue to choose adult leaders whose beliefs are consistent with their own,” it said.
About 70% of the roughly 650 Boy Scout troops in the greater Los Angeles area are chartered by religious organizations, Keathley said. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Roman Catholic and Methodist churches dominate the list, but other churches, temples and mosques also participate.
“We are well-represented across the faith community,” Keathley said.
The L.A. council already follows a behavior-based policy affirming that troop leadership is open to anyone, regardless of sexual orientation, but that leaders’ personal conduct must be fitting with Boy Scout standards. The resolution was written to be as broadly interpreted as possible, Keathley said.
Each troop selects leaders who fit their communities and values, Keathley said. That gives religious organizations sponsoring a troop the right to exclude Scout leaders who do not live up to their values, including their rules on sexual behavior. For example, a sponsor could choose to ban troop leaders who engage in premarital sex.
“As same-sex marriage is inconsistent with [LDS] faith, they can select the leaders that they believe are appropriate,” Keathley said.
The LDS church issued a statement reiterating the need for religion-based organizations to choose their own leaders. Officials with the national and local Catholic Committee on Scouting, the U.S. Conference of Bishops and the United Methodist Church also could not be reached for comment.
Southern Baptist Convention spokesman Roger Oldham reiterated what he’d said after Gates’ May speech: that he was “disappointed but not surprised. The board had telegraphed in January of 2013 what their goal was.” Each church under the convention is autonomous, so each “each church will decide on their own whether continuing working with the Boy Scouts based on the current policy,” Oldham said.
So far, Keathley said, there has been no pushback from religious organizations in Los Angeles against changes in policies on sexual orientation. The L.A. council is on track to serve up to 25,000 young people this year, with roughly 10,000 adult volunteers.
The notice the L.A. council received from the national group indicated that the board “had deep discussions with the governing bodies of all of our sponsoring institutions, and we have every reason to believe we are all on board,” Keathley said.
Zach Wahls, the executive director of Scouts for Equality, rejoiced at the news.
“For decades, the Boy Scouts of America’s ban on gay adults has stood as a towering example of explicit, institutional homophobia in one of America’s most important and recognizable civic organizations,” Wahls said in a statement. “While this policy change is not perfect — BSA’s religious chartering partners will be allowed to continue to discriminate against gay adults—it is difficult to overstate the importance of today’s announcement.”
The L.A. council had pushed for greater inclusion since the Boy Scouts of America went to the Supreme Court in 2000 over the right to discriminate against Scout leaders on the basis of sexual orientation.
In the Boy Scouts of America vs. Dale, the national organization fought for the right to exclude a gay Scout leader on that basis that homosexual conduct was inconsistent with the organization’s religious beliefs and mission to inculcate values in young people, so it should not have to include gay people.
The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that the Boy Scouts had a constitutional right to exclude openly gay Scout masters based on the Scouts’ 1st Amendment freedom of association.
If the Boy Scouts of America were required to litigate Dale today, “it would almost certainly lose,” said a lengthy memo on the organization's website explaining Monday’s announcement to religious organizations. It said the organization is too internally divided on the issue, and legal precedents and public opinion have too drastically changed, for it to succeed in legally defending a national ban on gay Scout leaders.
“In the 15 years since Dale, the government’s interest in protecting against discrimination based on sexual orientation has increased dramatically and is expected to continue to increase,” the memo said.
It also said the Boy Scouts of America will affirm the right of chartered religious organizations to keep using sexual orientation as a criterion in selecting leaders, adding that the courts have strongly protected religious organizations’ right to discriminate in hiring.
Douglas NeJaime, faculty director of the UCLA School of Law’s Williams Institute, a think tank on LGBT legal issues, said it is unclear whether the Boy Scouts would win the Dale case if litigated today.
But he agreed that the religious organizations that charter Boy Scout troops are protected under the law to discriminate in selecting volunteers.
However, how broadly that can be applied may depend on how a state’s anti-discrimination law is written.
In California, for instance, religiously associated nonprofits are broadly protected from the state’s anti-discrimination laws in hiring. In many other states, it depends on whether the person being hired is helping to fulfill the nonprofit’s religious mission -- so a teacher’s faith and morals can be considered but not the janitor’s, NeJaime said.
“A lot of this is pretty unsettled,” he said.