The executive committee of the Boy Scouts of America has unanimously approved a resolution that would drop the group’s blanket ban on openly gay leaders, a key step that puts the organization on the verge of its second historic shift in three years.
While the proposed change stops short of requiring all Scout units to allow gay leaders, it would dismantle a rule that the group’s president described earlier this year as an existential threat to the 105-year-old institution.
This resolution, approved on Friday, now goes to the organization’s national executive board. If the group ratifies the change during a meeting on July 27, it would become official Scouts policy.
“What this means is that gay adults who want to get involved, and there are lots of them, they can put the uniform back on, and they can serve openly and honestly in an inclusive unit that will accept them,” Zach Wahls, an Eagle Scout and executive director of Scouts for Equality, said in a telephone interview Monday. “I couldn’t be happier about that.”
Wahls said it appeared likely that the executive board would approve the change, saying it would be”unprecedented” for them not to approve one unanimously passed by the committee.
In a statement, the Scouts cast the proposed shift as the “result of the rapid changes in society and increasing legal challenges at the federal, state, and local levels.”
While the Scouts already faced their own legal threats, there are also new state and local laws prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation and gay rights groups saying they are focusing on securing broader legal protections going forward. And the national executive board of the Boy Scouts will consider this resolution just under just over a month after the Supreme Court ruled that gay couples had a right to marry nationwide, a decision that followed a remarkable surge in public support for gay marriage.
However, the Scouts were careful to note that the change does not mean that religious chartered organizations — which account for a significant portion of the group’s membership — have to accept gay leaders.
“This change allows Scouting’s members and parents to select local units, chartered to organizations with similar beliefs, that best meet the needs of their families,” the Boy Scouts said in a statement Monday. “This change would also respect the right of religious chartered organizations to continue to choose adult leaders whose beliefs are consistent with their own.”
Supporters and opponents of the resolution alike were critical of this distinction.
“This is a step in the right direction, but we’re still really concerned that there are still going to be groups that are going to be hostile to adult leaders,” Wahls said.
Similarly, Rob Schwarzwalder, senior vice president of the Family Research Council, said he thought the resolution was “a temporary fix….trying to split the difference” on the issue.
“There’s a certain kind of incoherence about that,” Schwarzwalder said in an interview. “I think it sends a very conflicting message to the boys who participate in Scouting. If they were to go all one way or all another, that would make sense. But I don’t think this is a policy that will endure. It’s not logical. It’s not, frankly, fair really to anyone.”
The Boy Scouts said that more than 2.4 million youth participants and about 981,000 adult volunteers were involved in its programs last year.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also known as the Mormon Church, is the biggest sponsor of Scout troops, with more than 437,000 youths in its units at the end of 2013. On Monday, the church said only that it wants to preserve its current decision-making process.
“As a chartering organization, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has always had the right to select Scout leaders who adhere to moral and religious principles that are consistent with our doctrines and beliefs,” the church said in a statement. “Any resolution adopted by the Boy Scouts of America regarding leadership in Scouting must continue to affirm that right.”
Under current policy, the Boy Scouts of America does not allow adult leaders “who are open or avowed homosexuals,” according to the group’s Web site.
When the group ended its ban on openly gay youth through a vote in 2013, it kept the ban on gay leaders in place. In May, Robert M. Gates, the former defense secretary and president of the Scouts, spoke urgently about the need to reconsider that policy, arguing that legal challenges were inevitable unless it was changed.
“We can act on our own or we can be forced to act, but either way, I suspect we don’t have a lot of time,” Gates said during a high-profile address at the group’s annual meeting.
He also said that the group should let religious organizations to set their own standards for leaders, while also respecting other perspectives and beliefs.
“I truly fear that any other alternative will be the end of us as a national movement,” he said.
The 2013 shift opened the door for this change, said John Stemberger, a Florida attorney and president of the Florida Family Policy Council, a conservative Christian organization. He criticized the latest change as the group not wanting to be left out of a fast-moving culture.
“The mission of the Boy Scouts of America…is to teach young people ethics and morals,” he said. “And what are we saying to young people when our values are challenged? Do we defend them, do we stand up for them? No, we just change them and capitulate to the culture.”
Stemberger, an Eagle Scout, helped lead a campaign to try and prevent the 2013 change. When that effort failed, he and others founded Trail Life USA, a Christian scouting group.
“After the campaign that we operated, everyone left that disagreed at that point,” he said Monday. “It was a unanimous decision today. It will likely be a unanimous decision [in two weeks] as well, I would imagine.”
This post has been updated.