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Southern Baptists consider abandoning Boy Scouts of America

The decision by the Boy Scouts of America to lift a ban on gay scouts -- though not scout leaders -- could lead to an exodus as the Southern Baptist Convention wraps up in Houston on Wednesday.
(Tom Pennington / Getty Images)
<i>This post has been updated. See the note below for details.</i>

HOUSTON — Some conservatives predicted an exodus of families and church sponsors from the Boy Scouts last month after Scouting leaders announced plans to lift a longstanding ban on gay Scouts.

So far, an exodus from Scouting has yet to materialize, but that could change this week as leaders of the powerful Southern Baptist Convention consider a proposal to abandon the Boy Scouts in favor of a more Christian youth group, such as the convention’s Royal Ambassadors.

Deron Smith, a spokesman for the Boy Scouts of America, which is based outside Dallas, said some groups stopped sponsoring troops after last month’s announcement, “but most are continuing with the program.” He could not say how many have left.

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“Our executives work with troop leadership to identify another suitable chartered organization and ensure a smooth transition for the families involved,” Smith said. “We are finding that when people read the new policy they see it is reflective of the beliefs of most of Scouting’s major religious chartered organizations.... We hope everyone stays with Scouting because we believe our organization is bigger than this single issue.”

The Boy Scouts did not lift its ban on adult gays participating in Scouting, but the admission of gay youths has angered and disappointed some leaders of the convention, who are holding their annual meeting in Houston this week.

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On Tuesday, the Rev. Harold Philips of Pleasant View Baptist Church in Port Deposit, Md., submitted a motion requesting that the Southern Baptist Convention’s leaders appoint a task force to “explore any available youth programs as well as the possibility of offering a substitute program” for the Boy Scouts. The motion said the Boy Scouts had “lost their way and lost their moral compass, the Bible.”

Phillips asked that the task force report back by fall, ahead of the Boy Scouts lifting the ban in January.

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Phillips, 55, a former Cub Scout, said his church sponsors Cub and Boy Scout troops and has yet to decide whether to disband them, but cannot accept gay Scouts.

“I can’t imagine a parent wanting to send their children on a campout or a jamboree with older boys who say they like boys. It makes no sense at all,” Phillips said.

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He said lifting the ban put churches in a difficult position. If they allow gay boys to camp out together and something goes wrong, are they liable? What if they turn away a gay Scout?

“It’s a whole lot easier to just do away with the Scouting program,” Phillips said.

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He called on national Baptist leaders to take action because those at local churches like his were in need of options.

“We either encourage the Scouts to go back to the way they were before or we’re going to have to come up with something ourselves,” he said.

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He noted that 70% of Boy Scout troops are sponsored by faith-based groups.

“If just half of the religious ones pull out, that’s going to be a big hit,” Phillips said.

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The Southern Baptist Convention’s growth has slowed in recent years, with fewer baptisms, but it is still a powerful force as the largest Protestant denomination in the country, with about 16 million members and 46,000 churches, many of which sponsor troops.

Phillips’ motion was referred to the executive committee Tuesday, the first day of the convention’s two-day meeting, but no other action was taken.

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Some church members speculated that convention leaders might also consider a separate resolution Wednesday urging churches and parents to throw support from the Boy Scouts to the Royal Ambassadors, the church’s youth mission group.

[Update, 8:15 a.m., PDT June 12: The Southern Baptist Convention on Wednesday was considering just that -- Resolution No. 6, “On the change of membership of the Boy Scouts of America,” calling on the Boy Scouts to remove executive board leaders who sought to lift the ban on gays, urging those who stay in scouting to try to reinstate the ban and supporting families who leave scouting, urging them to join Royal Ambassadors.]

The Royal Ambassadors was founded in 1908, two years before the Boy Scouts, and is devoted to forming a “faith-based brotherhood” with the motto “We are Ambassadors for Christ.” The group now serves more than 31,000 boys in first through sixth grades, with at least 6,300 leaders at 3,000 churches nationwide. The group has a smaller program for boys in middle and high school called Challengers.

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Royal Ambassadors, or RAs, do plenty of Scout-like activities: they wear vests, earn patches for outdoor activities, they even make model race cars similar to the Cub Scout Pinewood Derby. But they lack the longstanding traditions and clout of the Boy Scouts, Phillips said. For instance, there is no Royal Ambassador equivalent of an Eagle Scout, although group leaders are trying to develop similar awards for Challengers.

Last month, after the Boy Scouts’ announcement, coordinators received about 50 calls, emails and Facebook messages from those looking to switch to Royal Ambassadors, even from families who were not Baptists. They were not alone. The Royal Rangers, a Pentecostal youth program with more than 81,000 members nationwide, saw inquiries double last month after the Boy Scouts’ announcement, according to a spokesman.

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Conservative church leaders from various denominations that are upset with the Boy Scouts lifting the ban on gay youths are expected to meet later this month in Louisville, Ky., to discuss forming an alternative scouting organization.

That’s what some Girl Scouts parents did when they felt the group was becoming too secular in 1995, creating American Heritage Girls, a Christian scouting group that now claims more than 27,000 adult and youth members in 628 troops nationwide. By contrast, there are 3.2 million Girl Scouts and adult volunteers in more than 236,000 troops.

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The Rev. Teddy Hill, 53, of Mill Creek Baptist Church in Hot Springs, Ark., said his church has yet to decide what to do about the Boy Scout troop they sponsor.

“Everyone in our area is opposed to what they did, so we’re probably going to have a vote and take a stand” against the Boy Scouts, he said during the annual meeting.

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The convention’s president, the Rev. Fred Luter, and other leaders have spoken out against the Boy Scouts lifting the ban on gay youths, saying that it compromises conservative principles. Hill said approving a resolution or statement at the meeting rebuking the Boy Scouts would underline the importance of those principles.

“This will be a great litmus test for the church,” Hill said, “Where do we take a stand?”

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molly.hennessy-fiske@latimes.com

Twitter: @mollyhf

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