Boy Scouts' Holy War Over Homosexuals
Denominations built Scouting; now some steer its gay ban while others object.

By Patrick Boyle
Youth Today
July 2000

Every now and then in the 1970s and '80s, members of the Boy Scouts of America's health and safety committee wanted to talk about sex. For the adolescents and teens among Scouting's more than 3 million boys, sex was a source of wonder and worry; the BSA could provide guidance on sexual development and abuse.

No way, said the BSA's most powerful constituents. Psychiatrist Dr. Walter Menninger, the health committee chair, later explained it like this in a deposition for a sex abuse case against the BSA:

"There are a number of sponsoring organizations, particularly the Mormon Church, that have made it quite clear they want Scouting ... but they want issues of moral, sexual aspects to be strictly part of the church's teaching." Churches, he said, "have a substantial percentage of registrations [of Scouts] and become a much more potent factor" in the organization's decisions.

In case anyone doubts just how potent, several months ago the Mormon Church drew this line in the sand: If Scout units must accept homosexuals as leaders, the Church will drop out - taking with it its 400,000 Scouts, about 12 percent of the BSA's total.

More than any single factor, the intensely close relationship between the BSA and religious organizations explains why BSA lawyers stood before the U.S. Supreme Court last month, arguing that the BSA's ban on gays does not violate anti-discrimination laws. And it helps explain why the BSA stands alone among the nation's largest youth-serving organizations - and even stands out among Boy Scout organizations around the world - in barring homosexuals.

The conflict carries implications for many youth-serving agencies, for it calls into question how free they are to choose adult leaders. But many at those agencies look on and wonder: How did the BSA get itself into this quagmire?

The answer lies in the its history and its structure.

The ban is filled with irony: It is based on a part of the Scout Oath that was modeled on the YMCA, which does not ban gays. A growing segment of the religious organizations that sponsor Scout units oppose the ban or don't care. And even the most ardent anti-gay denominations have no trouble sponsoring units in other organizations - such as the Girl Scouts and the Canadian Boy Scouts - that welcome gays.

In the middle are 3.5 million Scouts and 1 million adult volunteers who want one thing: the benefits of one of the most powerful youth development programs in the world.

A Simple Oath
In the beginning, the Catholic Church considered the Boy Scouts an enemy, because the BSA worked arm-in-arm with the largely Protestant YMCA. "There was a lot of anti-Scout bias" in the Church because Scouting "had a very strong Protestant flavor," says David Peavy, a former member of the National Catholic Committee on Scouting who is writing a book about the Catholic Church and the BSA.

Imported from England just after the turn of the century, the fledgling Boy Scout movement found quick friends in the YMCA, largely because of an acquaintanceship between BSA founder William Boyce and Edgar M. Robinson, the YMCA's first international secretary for boys' work, according to Peavy and a YMCA history being developed by the agency. Some YMCA clubs hosted Scout troops, and Peavy describes Robinson as essentially the first Chief Scout Executive.

The plan was for the BSA to eventually break out on its own, which it did after receiving a Congressional charter in 1910. Although modeled on the Scouting movement launched in England by war hero Lord Robert Baden-Powell, the American version differed. Although Baden-Powell built British Scouting on religious principals, the BSA forged a more formal connection to religious practice. It added an 11th element to the Scout Law: "A Scout is reverent toward God. He is faithful to his religious duties."

In case anyone missed that "go to church" message, the BSA constitution said, "No boy can grow into the best kind of citizenship without recognizing his obligation to God." And borrowing from the YMCA's three-tiered focus on "mind, body and spirit," Peavy says, the BSA developed what turned out to be two crucial last lines to its Scout Oath:

On my honor I will do my best
To do my duty to God and my country
and to obey the Scout Law;
To help other people at all times;
To keep myself physically strong,
mentally awake and morally straight.

Who could object to a boy saying such a thing? Even the Catholic Church came around, prompted by priests who started Scout troops in their parishes and found the program to their liking. Several Christian denominations were struggling to create youth programs that would instill their religious values but somehow be fun for the kids. Catholic and Protestant churches alike found Scouting to be a perfect fit: the boys loved the it, it had Christian underpinnings, and the BSA encouraged churches to mold their local Scouting programs for their own religious education.

This was "the genius of the Boy Scout Movement," wrote William Murray, an early Boy Scout official who wrote a history of the BSA. The Mormon Church, in an amicus curiae ("friend of the court") brief to the U.S. Supreme Court on the James Dale case, put it best:

"Because of Scouting's devotion to the spiritual element of character education and its willingness to submerge itself in the religious traditions of its sponsors, America's churches and synagogues enthusiastically embraced Scouting."

This "go ahead and use me" approach by the BSA was mutually beneficial, as the Mormon brief says: "For many religious organizations ... the Scouting program is a means of youth ministry. At the same time, sponsorship by religious organizations has enabled the Scouting movement to expand and increase its influence on the nation's boys."

By 1915, 4,000 of the nation's 7,375 Scout units were chartered to Protestant churches, according to an analysis by the American Family Association Center for Law and Policy, a conservative Christian group. By then the BSA also had a Commissioner for Scout work in the Catholic Churches, whose job was to promote Catholic units. In 1918, Peavy says, a letter from the Vatican bestowed the blessing of Pope Benedict XV on Catholic scouting.

No one embraced Scouting more enthusiastically than the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS). Scouting became the official youth ministry program for Mormon boys. In a 1990 LDS newsletter, Mormon Apostle Thomas S. Monson said the Church and its troops "serve together; they work together. Every program I've seen from Scouting complements the objectives we are attempting to achieve in the lives of our young men, helping them strive for exaltation."

Today the LDS sponsors about 31,000 Scout units - more than anyone, although United Methodist-chartered units account for slightly more Scouts (424,000).

Religious organizations sponsor 65 percent of Scout units, according to the BSA. Most of the others are sponsored by government organizations (such as police), educational associations (such as schools) and civic organizations (such as Lions Clubs). Sponsoring (or more precisely, receiving a charter for) a Scout troop or Cub pack means running it, from providing a meeting place and raising funds to choosing leaders. (Mike Montalvo, a Dallas researcher who has examined the Boy Scouts, says religious organizations actually account for 55 percent of all Scouts.)

Regardless of the precise numbers, religious organization influence on Scouting cannot be overstated. Officials from various denominations - including Mormon, Catholic, Methodist, Lutheran and Presbyterian - sit on the BSA executive board and its advisory council. Most of the churches have organizations dedicated to Scouting, such as the Lutheran Association for Scouters, formed to "encourage Lutheran congregations to use the programs and resources of the Boy Scouts of America as a means of extending their ministry to children, youth and families." The BSA has a Religious Relations Sub-Committee. And the BSA has sanctioned badges for churches to award their Scouts for accomplishments tied to religious education: the God and Country badge for Baptists, for instance, and the Religion in Life badge of the Unitarians.

While these denominations hold various positions on homosexuality, two of the biggest sponsors - the Mormon and Catholic Churches - condemn homosexual behavior as sinful. The leadership at BSA, Inc., in Irving, Tex., has shared an instinctual view that gay men should not be working closely with boys. No one questioned this wisdom.

Until Tim Curran took a boy to the prom.

Courting Trouble
Right from the beginning the BSA, just like the Scout Association in England, found that its troops sometimes attracted men who should not be around boys. By 1911, one year after its incorporation, the BSA developed a "Red Flag" list of adults who had been kicked out of Scouting for not meeting the organization's "standards of leadership." People were banned for a variety of sins, such as criminal convictions, public drunkenness and stealing funds from troops. Over the decades, the biggest single reason for being banned from Scouting had been child molesting.

To the BSA, as with much of the country, it seemed logical that keeping out gay men was a way of preventing those men from having sex with the Scouts. But it wasn't just the churches that backed the BSA on this: in any conversation with parents at troop meetings, it has been clear that most, even those who profess a "live and let live" philosophy toward gays, feel uncomfortable with the idea of having their boys led by gay men. What's more, an increasing number of families sued the BSA in the 1970s and 1980s for sexual abuse by Scout leaders, costing the corporation tens of millions in lawyers fees and settlements. (The BSA subsequently acknowledged in its literature that gay men are no more likely to abuse boys than are heterosexual men.)

Even gay youth were not welcome: a Scoutmaster's handbook from the early 1970s discussed sexual experimentation among boys in troops, warning about "the practices of a confirmed homosexual who may be using his Scouting association to make contacts."

Tim Curran says he never used the Scouts for that, but he is gay - something his Scout council in California found out when a newspaper ran a story about Curran taking a boy to his senior prom. The 18-year-old was booted from Scouting. When he applied to be an adult volunteer the next year, he was rejected.

Curran sued the BSA for discrimination, and lost. The California courts ruled that the BSA had a right of association, i.e., it could choose its own leaders. But Scouting's homosexual ban was out of the closet: In a society growing more accepting of gays and gay rights, the ban has become a flashpoint in liberal/conservative culture wars. Foes call the ban ignorant and prejudicial; supporters see the BSA as standing up for bedrock moral values.

But it was not until the Dale case that the BSA really articulated its reasoning to the public. As with Curran, the trouble began with a newspaper story: Dale was quoted in an article about a seminar on the psychological and health needs of lesbian and gay teens, and identified as co-president of the Rutgers University Lesbian/Gay Alliance. Dale, who had been an Eagle Scout before becoming an assistant Scoutmaster, soon got a letter from the Monmouth Council of the BSA saying he was banned from Scouting. He sued.

The BSA subsequently issued a statement: "We believe that homosexual conduct is inconsistent with the requirement in the Scout Oath that a Scout be morally straight, and in the Scout Law that a Scout be clean in word and deed, and that homosexuals do not provide a desirable role model for Scouts."

The New Jersey Appellate Division didn't buy it, ruling last August that the BSA action violated the state's Law Against Discrimination (LAD). Most troubling for the BSA was that the court called Scouting a "public accommodation," and therefore subject to the LAD, not a private group that could exclude just about whomever it wants under freedom of association.

To add to the problem, the ban on gays was costing the BSA money, and sponsors.

Costly Pose
"The Scouts have said many times that their policies are not for sale, and if it costs them sponsorships, so be it," BSA attorney George Davidson told the Supreme Court last month.

And it has cost. Thanks to the publicity and the public debates over the issue throughout the '90s, some United Ways (which in 1996 contributed about $86 million to Scouting) - in San Francisco and Portland, Maine., for instance - withdrew their funding, saying they could not contribute to an organization that discriminates based on sexual orientation. Government agencies have also pulled their sponsorship or cooperation: Last year, the City of Chicago stopped sponsoring BSA Explorer units, while the Davis, Calif., school board voted to not let the Scouts use school bulletin boards, newsletters or student folders to recruit youth. In Ashland, Ore., a Cub Scout den announced last year that it would not renew its membership this year, because of the ban on gays.

The people who really run Scouting the million-plus volunteers and the professionals in the local councils - are far from unanimous on the issue. Typical was the result of an executive committee meeting of the Baden-Powell Council in upstate New York in 1992: In subsequently asking the BSA to reconsider its homosexual ban, the council wrote that one committee member pointed out "that Scouting itself has taught many of us tolerance. Others are troubled by the thoughts of homosexual leaders."

Scout Councils in San Jose, Calif., Narragansett, R.I., and St. Paul, Minn. (home of the first Catholic troop, in 1910) are among those that have also asked the BSA to reconsider its ban on gays, often citing fear of losing funding.

The Narragansett Council took the apparently unprecedented step last year of reinstating an openly homosexual employee. The 16-year-old Eagle Scout was released from a summer job at Camp Yawgoog, and kicked out of Scouting, after camp officials asked if rumors that he was gay were true. The boy said yes. After a public uproar the council reinstated his Scouting membership and offered his job back, with an okay from BSA, saying it was Scout policy not to ask about employees' sexual orientation - sort of like negating a conviction because the warrant was bad.

Was that a crack in the BSA wall?

Religious Divides
Homosexuality is a fault line in American culture, and that line runs through its churches.

While religious organizations sponsor most Scout units, those organizations are by no means unified in their positions on homosexuality. The Unitarian Universalist Church, the United Church of Christ, and Reformed Judaism are among those that fully accept homosexuality and have urged the Scouts to do the same. The Episcopal Church of the USA, the Presbyterian Church of the USA and the United Methodist Church have all "acknowledged the presence of gays in their ranks" and are wrestling with the issue, according to an amicus brief filed by several deans of divinity schools and rabbinical institutions.

Some of these denominations have fought the BSA position. A Unitarian handbook published in the 1990s called BSA policies "homophobic." The United Church of Christ implored the BSA in 1993 to "stop its discriminatory practices of prohibiting openly gay" people in Scouting.

But those churches account for a small number of Scout units, and they're not threatening to pull out over the issue. But consider the United Methodist Church (UMC), the BSA's leading youth sponsor, whose struggle over homosexuality mirrors the nation's.

Last September the Commission on United Methodist Men of the UMC publicly backed the Scouts in its appeal of the Dale ruling in New Jersey. The next month, the UMC General Board on Church and Society took the opposite stand, saying that it "condemns discrimination based on sexual orientation."

The United Methodist Men is a commission that oversees the UMC's Scout program. The Church and Society board deals with UMC social policies. The two are of equal status in the UMC. So who wins? In May, the general conference of the UMC voted not to concur with either position.

Even the National Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement in 1997 urging parents of homosexual children not to break off relations with those children, but to "offer loving support." It said that gays "must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity."

The National Catholic Committee on Scouting and the Methodist Men joined the LDS in an amicus brief backing the Scout ban but neither the Catholics or Methodists said they'd withdraw if the Court strikes that ban. The LDS wrote that it "would withdraw from Scouting if it were compelled to accept openly homosexual Scout leaders."

"It [Scouting] is not as big a deal in the Catholic Church as within the Mormon Church," says Peavy, author of the Church history with Scouting. "From a political standpoint" within the BSA, "the Mormons have much more impact. It's their official program."

Several people who've worked at high levels with the BSA believe the organization's strong (or stubborn) stand on gays reflects the muscle of the Mormons and conservative Catholics on BSA boards. Yet while the BSA may be concerned about losing Mormon troops, few youth-serving organizations in the United States are in a better position to absorb a financial hit. In 1997, the last year for which BSA tax returns are available, the corporation reported a $56 million operating surplus.

Besides, one does not have to go far to find evidence that if the BSA accepted gays, churches would not drop out.

A Solution, Eh?
Churches sponsor "just under half" of the 3,860 Scout "groups" in Canada, says Scouts Canada spokesman Andy McLaughlin. The Mormon Church accounts for seven percent (272) , and the Catholic Church for almost five percent (190).

And last year, Scouts Canada accepted the creation of an all-gay troop. When Scouts Canada polled its sponsors for reaction, "we didn't hear any concerns," McLaughlin says.

Scouts Canada has no position on gays serving as leaders. Neither does the British Scout Association. Both say this causes no trouble with churches that sponsor units.

In the United States, Catholic Churches sponsor some Girl Scout troops (the exact number is not available), even though the Girl Scouts does not ban gay leaders.

It is unclear, however, whether church-sponsored units in these organizations would be forced to accept gays if they did not want to, which is the requirement under New Jersey's Dale decision.

Many observers, such as Montolvo, believe the BSA will eventually leave the decision up to local sponsors. In an amicus brief, the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America asked that if the Supreme Court upholds Dale, it at least carve out an exception for religious organizations to define certain moral requirements for leadership in Scout units.

Evan Wolfson, Dale's attorney, says that's not enough. "They tout themselves as open to all," he says of the BSA. All Scout troops are public accommodations, he says, and cannot discriminate.

That argument worries even some who disagree with the BSA's policy. They say it should be able to decide who joins. That's why a group called Gays and Lesbians for Individual Liberty filed an amicus brief on behalf of the BSA; it doesn't want the courts eventually declaring that a gay organization must accept heterosexuals, or even someone who is anti-gay.

That's why the Supreme Court decision could reach far beyond the local Boy Scout troop.

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