The Boy Scouts of America, facing litigation, shrinking membership and sweeping acceptance of gay rights, voted Monday to lift its ban on openly gay troop leaders and employees.
It wasn’t clear if the compromise would satisfy religious traditionalists. The Mormon Church put out a statement Monday night saying its “century-long association with Scouting would need to be examined.”
The executive board’s vote was taken at the suggestion of the group’s president, former defense secretary Robert Gates, who noted that the Scouts are facing potential lawsuits by gay adults who were shut out of positions. But church-state legal experts said the decision will likely just shift the controversy and legal battles from the national group to local troops and councils as volunteers barred from participating file suit.
“It’s changing the target [of litigation] because now it will be all about the local, not the national,” said Douglas Laycock, a prominent religious liberty scholar at the University of Virginia. “It changes the dynamic a lot. It makes it more informal, less visible.”
Gay equality advocates praised the measure as a start.
“This was a very important and difficult change for such an organization,” said Josh Schiller, an attorney representing Yasmin Cassini, a lesbian in Colorado who was hired to run a Scout center but then lost the job when she came out. Schiller is working pro bono with other high-profile lawyers to fight the Scout ban. “I definitely think it’s the beginning of building inclusive programs…It’s halfway where we want to be.”
The vote comes two years after the BSA lifted its ban on openly gay youth, a dramatic step for an organization whose leaders went to the Supreme Court to fight accepting openly gay members. Some 70 percent of Boy Scout troops are run by faith-based groups, many from orthodox communities including Mormons, Catholics, Southern Baptists and Muslims who do not accept gay equality.
But the march toward full equality for gay and lesbian Americans has unfolded with unusual speed, with 25 states accepting gay marriage in 2013 and 2014 before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June that the Constitution guarantees a right to same-sex marriage. Polls have shown acceptance of gay equality rising sharply among the young. Meanwhile, the Boy Scouts experienced a 7 percent drop in membership since lifting its ban on openly gay youth.
The Scouts’ smaller executive committee, whose members serve on the larger executive board, voted unanimously earlier this month to permit openly gay adults to serve as leaders.
The new rules approved Monday allow troops chartered by a religious organization — including churches, mosques and synagogues — to “continue to choose adult leaders whose beliefs are consistent with their own.”
“For far too long, this issue has divided and distracted us,” said president Robert Gates in a statement. “Now it’s time to unite behind our shared belief in the extraordinary power of scouting to be a force for good in a community and in the lives of its youth members.”
According to the Boy Scouts’ statement, 79 percent of board members voted in favor of the resolution. Equality activist Zach Wahls, son of lesbian parents, cited someone on the board as saying 45 people were in favor, 12 were opposed.
Laycock said it’s not clear what will happen over the long-term in court. No states, he said, have bans on discriminating against gay people for volunteers. And about half the states do not have employment discrimination bans.
It’s also unclear how these changes will play out in the years to come, as some conservative leaders say like-minded troops are moving away from the Scouts. Roger Oldham, a spokesman for the Southern Baptist Convention, said traditional groups are braced for the possibility that soon, even church-based groups will be required to fully accept gay leaders.
“The next step, which may be a year or two down the road, seems obvious to us,” Oldham wrote. Traditional groups “are being put into a situation where they have to either compromise their conviction or choose to leave. And for those for whom Biblical sexual morality is a conviction they have no alternative,” he said.
The Mormon Church, the largest group in Scouting and one of the few whose membership has continued to grow after 2013, issued a statement Monday night saying its leaders were “deeply troubled” by the vote and the fact that it was timed when church governing bodies aren’t meeting. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had requested a delay, the statement said.
“The Church has always welcomed all boys to its Scouting units regardless of sexual orientation. 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,” it said. “…this vote by the BSA National Executive Board will be carefully reviewed by the leaders of the Church in the weeks ahead.”
Chad Griffin, president of the GBLT advocacy group Human Rights Campaign, called the vote “a welcome step.”
“But including an exemption for troops sponsored by religious organizations undermines and diminishes the historic nature of today’s decision,” Griffin said. “Discrimination should have no place in the Boy Scouts, period.”
Wahls, who is an Eagle Scout and executive director of the advocacy group Scouts for Equality, said Monday’s vote will mean a “sigh of relief” for gay summer camp counselors or other adult volunteers who want to work with troops.
Wahls, however, called the fact that so many faith-based troops may continue to ban openly-gay leaders “disconcerting … Scouting is a place to hone important life skills and a moral compass. And that should not be sullied by discrimination, I think that’s really self-evident.”
The benefits of Scouting are significant and the program should be kept healthy, he said.
“Even though this ban is in place, there are a lot of gay youth [in it.] That should tell you a lot about the program.”
Brian Peffly, a 35-year-old lifetime Scout who the Boy Scouts pushed out earlier this year — citing his violation of the ban — said Monday he had mixed feelings about the potential change. He is glad the organization is becoming more open, but officials are making clear they are doing so because they have no other choice.
“Those words don’t make me feel warm and fuzzy and like I want to run back and join,” said Peffly.
Peffly said the group hasn’t gone far enough by not apologizing to people denied opportunities because of their sexual orientation.
“I think what they owe me is a formal apology, but I think I probably I will go my entire life and they never will apologize. So what I’ve been thinking is, should I just wait the rest of my life, and if I don’t get one, never be involved with Scouting? I have to keep telling myself, the whole goal is to save Boy Scouts. We want to continue to exist in the future and in order to do that, people like me need to be at the table,” he said.