Top officials of the Boy Scouts of America have unanimously recommended allowing gay boys into the ranks of one of the nation’s oldest and most traditional youth groups while continuing to exclude homosexual adults as leaders.
Scouting’s executive committee described the proposal as an effort to acknowledge changes in society while respecting the religious organizations that sponsor many Scout troops across the country. It also aims to move the organization beyond a controversy that has rocked its foundation in the last several months.
“We believe the BSA can no longer sacrifice its mission, or the youth served by the movement, by allowing the organization to be consumed by a single, controversial, and unresolved societal issue,” National President Wayne Perry said in a statement.
The recommendation is set for a vote at the Scouts’ 1,400-member national council meeting in May.
Though a dramatic shift from the Scouts’ outright ban on gays, the proposal left many on both sides of the debate unsatisfied. It comes after months of intense pressure inside and outside the organization, whose leadership has sent mixed signals on the issue. On Friday, some who have pushed for change were no happier than those who want to keep the status quo.
“If this is what the proposal is, I think it’s trash,” said Howard Menzer, 76, a longtime leader who left Scouting in 1999 to protest the ban. He now heads Scouting for All, a San Diego advocacy group.
“What is the purpose of allowing gay children in if gay adults are excluded? We’re not pedophiles,” he said. “In the 23 years I was a scoutmaster, never did I talk about sexuality and being gay. Why would they want to keep me out? I think it’s strictly the religious people saying, ‘They’re terrible people, they’re not moral.’”
Tony Perkins, president of the conservative Family Research Council, called the Scouts’ proposal “incoherent” and “an affront to the notion that Scouts are brave, reverent, and ‘morally straight.’”
“This resolution would introduce open homosexuality into the ranks and eventually the leadership of Scouting,” he said in a statement.
“This is totally unacceptable to the vast majority of Scouting parents who want to keep their exclusive right to discuss issues of sexuality with their sons. The resolution requires all Scouting families and faith-based organizations that object to homosexuality on religious grounds to affirm its moral validity.”
The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Scouts’ policy in 2000, but it has continued to draw protests. As of Friday, the website for Scouts for Equality said that petitions against the ban have more than 1.6 million signatures.
Last July, Scouting officials announced that after a two-year, confidential review, the organization had decided to keep the no-gays policy, which is essentially “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Experts at the time said the decision reflected the conservative values of many members, as well as the influence of the Roman Catholic and Mormon churches and the Southern Baptist Convention, which are among the largest sponsors of Scout troops.
But not all religious organizations opposed lifting the ban. Leaders of the United Methodist Church, the Scouts’ second-biggest chartering organization, welcomed reform.
“United Methodists affirm that all persons are individuals of sacred worth,” Jim Winkler, top executive of the General Board of Church and Society, said last summer.
Others who have called for lifting the ban include many former Eagle Scouts, prominent Scouting board members, President Obama and his Republican challenger Mitt Romney, several U.S. senators and New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.
In September, Intel Corp.'s foundation pulled its sponsorship of Scouting, citing the company’s anti-discrimination policy. The UPS Foundation followed suit in October, and the foundation of the pharmaceutical giant Merck in December.
Some California legislators have threatened the Scouts with legislation that would revoke exemption from state taxes for any nonprofit that excludes members by sexual orientation, gender identity or religious affiliation.
In January, word leaked out that the Scouts might retreat from the ban and allow local groups to decide. A week later, however, the group’s national board, buffeted by the furor that had erupted, put off a vote until May.
In the months since, Scouting has conducted what it calls “the most comprehensive listening exercise in its history,” holding more than 250 town hall meetings across the country and polling more than 1 million members, Friday’s statement said. The results of that survey, Scouting officials said, helped inform the proposal released Friday.
Support for the gay ban among parents has dropped from 57% three years ago to 48% today, the Scouts found.
A majority of youth in Scouting oppose the ban and say the policy does not represent a core value of Scouting, the survey found.
Yet support for the ban remains strong among much of Scouting’s volunteer leadership and the organizations that charter local units, many of which are churches, survey results showed. Major local donors are closely divided on the question, while most Fortune 500 companies that financially support the organization favor a policy change.
The proposed policy change is an effort to find a middle ground, officials said.
“America needs Scouting, and our policies must be based on what is in the best interest of our kids,” said Perry, the national president. “We believe good people can disagree and still work together to accomplish great things for youth.”
The proposed resolution states, “No youth may be denied membership in the Boy Scouts of America on the basis of sexual orientation or preference alone.”
It also states that the Scouts will “maintain the current membership policy for all adult leaders,” effectively barring openly gay men and women.
Some who oppose the ban say it is based on an ill-founded belief that admitting homosexuals will lead to an increase in sexual abuse in Scouting.
“I can’t imagine any other justification for excluding gay adults from volunteering,” said Jane Ward, a professor of lesbian and gay studies at UC Riverside. “I think the presumption is they are a threat to children.”
But experts consulted by Scouting for its survey agreed that admitting homosexual adults or children would not put Scouts at greater risk.
“The nearly universal opinion among sexual abuse authorities is that same-sex sexual interest or same-sex sexual experience, either in adults or youth, is NOT a risk factor for sexually abusing children,” the organization said in a summary of its survey results.