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World & Nation

Boy Scouts lift blanket ban on gay leaders, will allow exceptions

Boy Scouts Gays

A statue of a Boy Scout stands in front of the National Scouting Museum in Irving, Texas.

(LM Otero / Associated Press)

The Boy Scouts of America lifted a blanket ban on gay scout leaders Monday but will allow religious-backed scout groups to deny leadership positions based on sexual orientation.

Seventy-nine percent of the youth organization’s national executive board voted to immediately lift the ban in a conference call Monday after the measure had been tentatively approved July 10.

“Due to the social, political and legal changes taking place in our country and in our movement, I did not believe the [ban on gay leaders] could be sustained,” Boy Scouts President Robert M. Gates said in a statement after Monday’s vote. “Any effort to do so was inevitably going to result in simultaneous legal battles in multiple legal jurisdictions and at staggering cost.”

The best way for the Boy Scouts organization to press ahead while maintaining its “core values” was to “address the issue and set our own course,” Gates said. “And that’s what we’ve done.”

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The decision caps two years of public debate over the role of gays in one of the nation’s largest youth organizations. It was welcomed by gay rights advocates and greeted with concern by some religious groups.

In a statement, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints – one of the Boy Scouts’ biggest sponsors – said it was “deeply troubled” by the decision, and its “century-long association with Scouting will need to be examined.”

“The church has always welcomed all boys to its scouting units regardless of sexual orientation,” the church said. “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.”

The church also objected that Monday’s vote had been scheduled for July against its requests, since many members of the church’s governing councils were out of their offices and unable to meet during the month. A Boy Scouts spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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Gay rights supporters welcomed Monday’s decision, albeit with some caution.

“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,” Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin said in a statement. “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.”

Brian Peffly, 35, who said he was dismissed as assistant scoutmaster from Scout Troop 192 in Ohio earlier this year because he was gay, called the vote “a huge step forward.”

“The people who still want to discriminate, they’re eventually going to die out, but what a great day for scouting and our country,” Peffly said.

On Monday evening, Peffly met with leaders of his troop in the greater Columbus area and said they supported him and gave him a form to re-register to rejoin the Boy Scouts.

“I am probably going to do it,” Peffly said, even though he had felt “cut deeply” when the national organization ejected him.

Zach Wahls, the executive director of Scouts for Equality, a scouting advocacy group, said his two gay mothers were “very excited” by the decision. 

The policy change ideally means that gay scout leaders “wouldn’t have to worry about being found out and being reported,” said Wahls, who said there have been “dozens” of gay people removed from scouting posts because they had been “found out.”

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“They won’t have to live in that fear anymore, and it’s pretty incredible,” he said.

Wahls, an Eagle Scout from Iowa, has been an advocate for allowing gay scouts and troop leaders. He helped spearhead a petition that gained more than 2.2 million signatures calling on the Boy Scouts to end the ban on gays.

Mike Bryant -- a spokesman for the chapter of Scouts for Equality in Greater Los Angeles and an assistant scoutmaster in Pasadena with two boys in the Scouts -- said he was pleased that national scouting leaders moved quickly on the issue but there was still work to be done.

“They’re still allowing discrimination and a noninclusive culture, if you will, for some religious chartering organizations who choose that road,” said Bryant, noting that he was speaking in his capacity as a spokesman of Scouts for Equality.

Jonathan Saenz, president of the conservative Texas Values advocacy group based in Austin,  is a leader of a religiously chartered Scouts group and has two boys who are Cub Scouts. He said he was disappointed but not surprised by Monday’s decision.

“It was clear the Boy Scouts had become an organization run from the top down and makes its decisions based on the political whims of the day,” he said.

Saenz said he wants to see how large religious organizations respond to the move and wants more information on whether the Boy Scouts will provide a legal defense to local groups that ban gay leaders.

“We know they will start to get attacked,” Saenz said. “I predict they’ll be attacked tomorrow.”

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Leaders of the National Catholic Committee on Scouting wrote to Catholic Scout members Monday that they were concerned about the practical applications of the policy change.

But national Chairman Edward P. Martin and national Chaplain Michael P. Hanifin added, “It appears that the resolution respects the needs of Catholic-chartered organizations in the right to choose leaders whose character and conduct are consistent with those of Catholic teaching.”

“If you are like us, you joined Scouting to make a difference in the lives of others,” they wrote. “Our youth don’t want to leave Scouting. Catholic Scouters like you are still very much needed. Let’s continue this important journey together and pray for the future of Scouting!”

The youth organization has been under great pressure to find a middle ground between two forces: churches and religious groups, many of them conservative, which charter 70% of Scout troops; and an increasingly powerful gay rights movement that recently won a resounding legal victory at the U.S. Supreme Court over the right of same-sex couples to marry nationwide.

In May, Gates announced at an annual meeting in Atlanta that the status quo on gay leaders “cannot be sustained.”

“I truly fear that any other alternative will be the end of us as a national movement,” said Gates, former CIA director and secretary of Defense.

But Gates added that it was important to allow religious organizations to continue to make their own decisions on whether to include gay adults.

“We must, at all costs, preserve the religious freedom of our church partners to do this,” Gates said, adding, “We want and value your thoughts on all this.”

The Boy Scouts decided to allow openly gay Scouts in 2013 after a public battle.

Follow @mattdpearce for national news.

NEWSLETTER: Get the day’s top headlines from Times Editor Davan Maharaj >>

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