In Watershed Moment, Boy Scouts of America Finally Lift Ban on Openly Gay Leaders

In Watershed Moment, Boy Scouts of America Finally Lift Ban on Openly Gay Leaders
Source: AP
Source: AP

The executive board of the Boy Scouts of America has officially ratified a proposal lifting the century-old group's controversial ban on gay and bisexual troop leaders, a move its leaders hope will bring an end the organization's long struggle with the issue of homosexuality in scouting. Boy Scouts of America president Robert Gates, a former secretary of defense who oversaw the dismantling of the U.S. military's ban on gay soldiers, had previously called for the ban on gay troop leaders to be re-evaluated, telling a Scout gathering in Atlanta earlier this year that it "cannot be sustained."

In a statement following the executive board's vote, which ratified the measure in a 45-to-12 tally, Gates said, "The best way to allow BSA to continue to focus on its mission and preserve its core values was to address the issue and set our own course, and that's what we've done." In a video message accompanying the statement, Gates assured wary Scout leadership that "religious chartered organizations may continue to use religious beliefs as a criterion for selecting adult leaders, including in matters of sexuality."

Source: YouTube

The end of an error: Monday's vote represents the final step in a long and, at times, difficult journey for the organization in its treatment of gay scouts and troop leaders. In 1999, the organization went all the way to the Supreme Court to protect its right to discriminate against homosexual members. The high court's decision in support of the ban on gay scouts did little to end the controversy for the organization, membership in which has dropped by nearly a third in the past 15 years. Mounting criticism of the ban has spurred boycotts from major corporations and skepticism about scouting's place in the 21st century.

"This vote marks the beginning of a new chapter for the Boy Scouts of America," Zach Wahls, co-founder of Scouts for Equality, a nonprofit group that aims to reform restrictions on scouting membership, said in a statement to Mic. "Tens of thousands of people came together because they wanted to build a better future for the Boy Scouts of America, and that future starts today. I couldn't be more proud of the tireless work of our members, volunteers, and staff over these last three years. As of today, the Boy Scouts of America is an organization that is looking forward, not back."

The organization has been bracing for the repeal of the ban since May 21, when Gates announced at the Boy Scouts' annual national meeting that its ban on gay troop leaders was an open target for lawsuits. "We must deal with the world as it is, not as we might wish it to be," Gates said at the time. "We must all understand that this will probably happen sooner rather than later," he added, warning that in the meantime, a court decision in favor of openly gay leaders "could forbid any kind of membership standard." Two weeks ago, that new policy was unanimously approved by the Boy Scouts' national executive committee.

Although the blanket ban on gay and bisexual troop leaders has been removed from the organization as a whole, the newly adopted proposal will still allow individual scout troops to exclude gay leaders. (It's the "let the states decide" approach to scouting, only with more merit badges.) More than 71% of Boy Scout troops are chartered to religious organizations — more than 37,000 of which are sponsored by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, an organization with its own troubled history with homosexuality.

According to Wahls, the strong relationship between the Boy Scouts and religious institutions that condemn homosexuality is part of the reason that change has been so slow to come to the organization. "If you belong to a Boy Scout unit, that unit is a legally owned and operated entity of a different nonprofit organization that charters and sponsors the unit," Wahls said in a previous interview with Mic. "Churches have a huge amount of power within the Boy Scouts of America."

"Trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly": Although the removal of homosexuality as an automatic violation of the Scout Oath to be "morally straight" may bring the organization more in line with a certain cookie-selling sister organization, there is still at least one more group that faces direct discrimination by the Boy Scouts: atheists.

According to the Boy Scouts' "Declaration of Religious Principle," the organization's bylaws, "no member can grow into the best kind of citizen without recognizing an obligation to God." This has been interpreted to mean that the Boy Scouts of America will not accept any atheist or agnostic scouts or troop leaders, even in troops that are sponsored by civic organizations or public school districts. "As a person of faith, the ban on atheist and agnostic scouts makes no sense, Wahls told Mic. "Scouts who don't necessarily share the same religious belief system as religious chartering organizations can and do still embody the most values inherent to scouting." According to Wahls, however, a repeal of that ban is still "likely a few years away."