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Politically savvy parents of D.C. area Boy Scouts push effort to lift ban on gay members

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The letter from the parents was passionate and direct. It argued that the local United Way did not discriminate against gay people and that it should expect the same of a major recipient of its donations: the Washington region’s Boy Scouts.

“Can we let Scouts promise to be trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent — except toward their gay friends?” asked the Feb. 25 letter to the local United Way, signed by more than a dozen Montgomery County parents, Scoutmasters and Eagle Scouts.

On Friday, the Boy Scouts of America unveiled a compromise proposal, calling for an end to its long-standing ban on openly gay members, while maintaining its ban on gay adult leaders. The resolution, which states that “no youth may be denied membership in the Boy Scouts of America on the basis of sexual orientation or preference alone,” will be put to a vote by the organization’s national council next month.

The announcement surprised and disappointed both opponents and supporters of the ban, who were already mobilizing to influence the outcome of the vote before they knew exactly what would be considered. The resolution is fueling a new push.

Letters are being written, e-mails sent and donations threatened. In Utah, nearly half of Boy Scout leaders in the Salt Lake City area said they would quit the organization if the ban is removed. In California, legislators are considering stripping the organization of state tax breaks if the ban is not removed.

On Friday, a national group called OnMyHonor.Net, a coalition of Scout leaders, parents, donors and Eagle Scouts, urged the national council to vote against the resolution and “uphold the time-tested membership policy of the Boy Scouts.”

But if lobbying efforts can be measured in decibels, one of the loudest is coming from Washington, where politically savvy parents who want the Scouts to embrace gay youth and adult leaders have been using every back-channel method they can think of to pressure their regional organization.

The local United Way has given the Boy Scouts more than $1 million over the past five years. The parents figured that would give the United Way some leverage with National Capital Area Council (NCAC), which overseas hundreds of Boy Scout troops between Frederick and Fredericksburg and is one of the country’s largest, most influential regional groups.

What the parents didn’t know was that William Hanbury, president of the United Way of the National Capital Area, has a gay son who left Scouting at 13.

“He sensed that he wasn’t going to be accepted,” said Hanbury, who met with the parents a few weeks after receiving their letter.

They were euphoric when Hanbury pulled out of a letter of his own, signed by him and Joseph M. Rigby, the head of Pepco and chairman of the local United Way. It urged the NCAC to support lifting the ban when it votes the week of May 20.

“The world is different today than when the Boy Scouts was originally organized, and our donors are in-step with the modern values of diversity and inclusiveness,” the letter read. “Later this May, you will have an opportunity to assure diversity and expand inclusiveness by fully accepting gays into the Boy Scouts.”

People around the region who want to see the ban maintained have also been making themselves heard, asking how Scout leaders will prevent same-sex dating during overnight trips and raising questions about legal liability, officials say.

But while those local voices have been fervent, the people behind them do not appear to be waging the same type of organized campaign that has been growing in one corner of Washington. Even the Washington area churches where many Scout troops meet and where homosexual activity is traditionally regarded as a sin have remained largely silent.

The NCAC is just one of about 300 councils nationwide that will send delegates to Texas to vote on changing the policy. Officials at the Bethesda-based office say they have been inundated with feedback, pro and con, and that the volume of calls and e-mails increased on Friday.

Aaron Chusid, the group’s communications director, said the council is still digesting the resolution to partially lift the ban, but that it appears to be much more supportive of homosexual youth than the one earlier in the year that called for letting local troops set their own policies on the matter. The council will likely not make any public statements in favor or against the resolution before the vote, Chusid said.

Much of the organized lobbying aimed at the council is being directed by Troop 52, which meets in Chevy Chase and is the one of the oldest in the country. Several parents of Scouts in the troop were behind the letter to Hanbury and have also sent letters to all 60 members of the council’s board and those they believe have influence over its members, including J.W. Marriott Jr., of the hotel chain, and Thomas J. Donohue, head of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

They also reached out to Maryland Sen. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Montgomery), who last week sent a letter in support of lifting the ban to NCAC Chairman Hugh Redd. It was signed by 17 other Maryland lawmakers.

Chusid said he hadn’t met any of these parents before, but is now thinking he should get to know them. “If they can put this much passion into the popcorn sale, we’ll be in really good shape,” he said.

Tracie Felker, whose gay son, Pascal, put his Eagle Scout ranking at risk by publicly protesting the ban at a Bethesda intersection this month, said she and other parents and Scouts have dedicated years to camping trips and community projects.

“We consider ourselves to be embedded in the organization itself, and we’re trying to make change within something we love,” said Felker, whose other son, Lucien Tessier, earned his Eagle Scout ranking several years ago from Troop 52.

She said she has “mixed feelings” about the compromise under consideration. “I am thrilled that the Boy Scouts of America has been able to see that gay youth deserve a chance to participate in a Scouting program equal to any person regardless of sexual orientation. I’m very disappointed the ban on adult leaders is still in place.”

About a month ago, the troop took an internal survey and 90 percent of those who responded were in favor of lifting the ban. Felker has since created a parents group that now draws from about 10 other troops, including Troop 33 in Takoma Park and Troop 8 in Bethesda.

“This is really truly an example of it takes a village,” Felker said.

It just so happens that village is Washington, where Scouts have long learned about leadership and citizenship from those who understand it better than most. Here, Scouts have worked on their aviation merit badges with the head of the Federal Aviation Administration and have learned about farming from the agriculture secretary. When they talk about citizenship, it is with adults who count lawmakers, lobbyists and political operatives among their neighbors.

“I’m amazed when I go to these meetings,” said Susan Buchanan, parent of a Scout in Troop 8. “You walk into the room and feel you are in a powerhouse full of people who know how to organize and know how to rally for a cause. This region doesn’t attract or breed people who sit on their laurels and wait for decisions to be made on their behalf. And I think that has come out loud and clear in this process.”

Buchanan said she almost didn’t enroll her son in the Scouts nine years ago because of the ban, and she has since seen the policy push people away. When she was a Cub Scoutmaster, a mother once e-mailed her to ask if it was going to be a problem that she was lesbian. Another time, during a food drive, a neighbor wrote to describe the organization’s policy as a “painful affront, at least to your gay neighbors.”

Buchanan’s response: “Sometimes it’s best to try to effect change from the inside of an organization, and change is clearly underway.”

In the end, there may be no way for the parents to know the results of their pressure. The ballot of rougly 1,400 members of the National Council is expected to be secret.

Hanbury said he and his United Way colleagues long wrestled with their relationship with the Boy Scouts and even had a standard, noncommittal response ready to offer when asked about it. But after reading the letter from the Montgomery County group, Hanbury said he realized that neutrality was no longer good enough. Hanbury was a Scout, and so was his son, Neil, now 22.

“I listened to these parents, and I listened to my son and my own conscience, and I really do believe we have to move forward on eliminating this ban,” Hanbury said. “It’s un-American and not in step with what the best nonprofit practices would be or the best practices of any corporation.”

In the end, his letter not only made its way to the NCAC. Hanbury said it also hangs on his son’s dorm room wall.

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