IRVING, Texas –On July 27, the national executive board of the Boy Scouts of America is expected to ratify a new policy regarding adult leaders. If passed, it will clear the way for adults who identify as homosexual to volunteer in the organization at all levels — with significant exceptions carved out for religious objections. Such a move would bring the organization’s rules more in line with an underlying philosophy that the Boy Scouts is not an appropriate place to discuss, nor engage in, sexual activity.
Back in 2013, the Boy Scouts agreed that sexual orientation should not be a barrier to participation by boys themselves. This most recent move was in response to pressure from both within and without, and a recognition that the current policy forbidding volunteers based on sexual orientation is not likely to survive all the court challenges it faces.
Dr. Robert Gates, before becoming national president for the Boy Scouts, oversaw the repeal of the U.S. military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy as Secretary of Defense; a policy which was put into place as a compromise under President Bill Clinton. Speaking during the national business meeting in May, before the Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples have the right to marry, he said that he had hoped the 2013 decision to allow gay scouts would put the issue to rest for the duration of his two-year term. That was not to be.
. . . events during the past year have confronted us with urgent challenges I did not foresee and we cannot ignore. We cannot ignore growing internal challenges to our current membership policy . . . in open defiance of the policy, to more and more councils taking a position in their mission statements and public policy contrary to national policy. . . . nor can we ignore the social, political, and juridicial changes taking place in our country . . . not to mention the impending US Supreme Court decision this summer on gay marriage.
The legal and cultural pressure placed “the BSA in an unsustainable position,” he said. It could lead for court-ordered changes to the membership policy if the executive board itself did not act. “Waiting for the courts to is a gamble with huge stakes,” and could lead to the removal of all membership standards, including the “duty to god” clause, which requires all members to believe in a higher power.
What’s emerged is a policy which will allow adults to apply for volunteer positions, but preserve the rights of religious organizations which sponsor troops to continue to discriminate. Since some 70% of Boy Scout troops are sponsored by religious organizations, how much more leeway toward equality this new policy will actually grant remains to be seen.
Gates and the executive council, which released the proposal on July 13, believe it will be enough to shield the BSA from litigation. To that end, he promised a crackdown on councils that have imposed more inclusive policies. The Boy Scouts will also defend the rights of its religious sponsors to bar gay adults from participating. A statement released after the body approved the plan said in part:
This resolution will allow chartered organizations to select adult leaders without regard to sexual orientation, continuing Scouting’s longstanding policy of chartered organizations selecting their leaders. The National Executive Board will meet to ratify this resolution on Monday, July 27.
“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. This change would also respect the right of religious chartered organizations to continue to choose adult leaders whose beliefs are consistent with their own. The 2013 youth membership policy will not be affected and remains unchanged.
Much like that youth membership policy, this one has been deemed unsatisfactory by people on both sides of the issue. Presidential candidate and Eagle Scout Scott Walker said that the existing policy “protected children and advanced Scout values” but later backpedaled to claim he meant to say that it protected those children from media scrutiny. Reactions among Christians are mixed, with some churches pondering if it’s time to end the relationship, and others supporting the measure.
The Mormons, who sponsor a lot of troops, issued this statement:
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. Any resolution adopted by the Boy Scouts of America regarding leadership in Scouting must continue to affirm that right.
Southern Baptist Russell Moore predicted the decision won’t go well. “I have seen a definite cooling on the part of Baptist churches to the Scouts,” Moore said to Religion News Service. “This will probably bring that cooling to freezing.”
Advocates for equal rights are dismayed by the religious exemption. RNS quoted Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, as saying:
(W)riting in an exemption for troops organized by religious organizations undermines the potentially historic nature of the executive committee vote …As we have said countless times, half-measures are unacceptable and discriminatory exemptions have no place in the Boy Scouts.
Zach Wahls, executive director of Scouts for Equality, took a more measured tone. “While this policy change is not perfect — BSA’s religious chartering partners will be allowed to continue to discriminate against gay adults — it is difficult to overstate the importance of today’s announcement,” he said on that organization’s web site.
Circle Sanctuary minister and Eagle Scout Bob Paxton joined the protest against anti-gay policies in 2012, when he symbolically returned his Eagle ribbon in protest, a decision he discussed in an interview with Cara Schulz on behalf of the Pagan Newswire Collective. The Wild Hunt asked Paxton to weigh in on these new developments, and what it might mean for an organization that helped him, and likely other boys, find their way to Paganism.
The Wild Hunt: What do you think of the proposed policy on adult leaders?
Bob Paxton: The policy, which was adopted last week, now permits gay leaders, while still permitting troop sponsors to make their own choice on the troop level as to whether to discriminate or not. I think it’s a positive step forward — but not quite enough. The Girl Scouts of America has had a blanket anti-discrimination policy for quite a long time.
The difference in sponsorship and ownership models is significant: Boy Scout troops are “owned” by their sponsoring organizations, where Girl Scout troops are “owned” by the national Girl Scouts organization. While Girl Scout troops do often get local sponsorships, the lack of a sponsor does not mean the troop is dissolved. However, if a Boy Scout troop loses its sponsor, it must either find a new sponsoring organization or dissolve. 70% of Boy Scout troops are sponsored by religious organizations, with half of those troops being sponsored by the Mormon church — which as we know has been strongly opposed to GLBT rights initiatives.
I can understand why the national BSA organization made that choice, but I don’t think they were as courageous or as helpful as they could have been. That said, the perceived need to placate sponsors says to me that the BSA should re-evaluate the balance of power between sponsors and the central organization, and endeavor to fix that weakness in their structure.
TWH: My understanding is that the BSA has longstanding rules which prevent an adult from being alone with a boy, but revelations about the secret files kept on adults of concern suggest that either those rules didn’t work, or weren’t being enforced. Given that there’s no compelling research suggesting a link between sexual abuse of youth and sexual orientation, do you think it’s possible to come up with a policy that protects the boys, but allows them to benefit from the mentoring which is a strength of scouting?
BP: BSA’s current Youth Protection policy is quite good. It also didn’t exist in the 1980s, when I was a Scout. That said, those secret files — which the BSA fought unsuccessfully to keep private — tell interesting stories. A large number of them were released in 2005, and can be reviewed here.
Reviewing a small random sample, what I see is a fairly consistent pattern of behavior: reports of problematic behavior, some degree of investigation, and a permanent note in a confidential file which barred that person from attempting to register as a Scout leader elsewhere in the country. To that extent, it seems to me that the BSA organization tried to protect Scouts against predators. What I did not see was reporting to local law enforcement, and that’s a problem. The current Youth Protection policy puts mandatory reporting at the very top, which is as it should be.
All of this is to say: I don’t believe any of that changes with this new policy allowing for gay troop leaders. The BSA’s current Youth Protection policy is strong and unambiguous.
TWH: Should the policy be passed, would it change your attitude toward the organization? Would you want your Eagle back?
BP: My attitude toward the Boy Scouts has always been conflicted. There were a lot of positive values, and there was a lot of bullying and other problematic behavior. The programming itself is very good, and the facilities are really top-notch: any Pagan organization who got their hands on a Boy Scout camp like the one I went to in northern Wisconsin would have a festival ground which would be the envy of Pagandom. I can’t stress strongly enough how astonishingly good the Boy Scouts’ infrastructure is — it’s the result of decades of successful fundraising and quality maintenance. All of that was marred by enshrining discrimination in policy, thus providing official sanction for a cultural bias against young men whose sexuality differed from the perceived norm. As such: if the “on the ground” culture in Boy Scout troops shifts toward tolerance as a result of this, then that’s a good thing.
As to getting my Eagle medal back: when I returned it to them, it was a symbolic gesture showing my displeasure with the BSA’s failure to come to grips with this social change. I did not send back to them the really valuable things — the lessons I learned of leadership, or the formative experiences I had in the woods which led me to become a Pagan. Would I ask them to return it? No. Would I accept it if they chose to return it to me? Absolutely.
TWH: Any thoughts on the short- or long-term consequences this policy might have on the BSA?
BP: Short-term: it really depends on what the sponsoring organizations do with this. There may be some loss of sponsorships, which would be a pity. Long-term: it really depends on whether the BSA organization engages in the restructuring I talked about earlier, where individual troops would no longer be so tightly-controlled by conservative religious groups. It could be a transformative moment, or it could be a continuation of the gradual membership decline they’ve seen in recent years.
TWH: Do you believe that there is still room for boys to connect with Paganism through this organization, in the manner you described in your interview with Cara Schulz? Is there room for a more overt Pagan presence, such as troop sponsorship or religious awards?
BP: There was room for me to connect with Paganism organically in the 1980s, and nothing has changed about that. There are great benefits to encouraging young men to get outdoors consistently, regardless of the religious paths those young men eventually walk. I do think there is an opportunity for Pagans to engage more deeply with both Boy Scouting and Girl Scouting, especially now that troop sponsorship is an option for those Pagan orgs which may have held back due to that discriminatory policy. That opportunity isn’t so much proselytizing — that’s not really our thing — but in highlighting the sacred values of interconnectedness and inclusiveness. There is genuine value in working with organizations that have long institutional history, good funding, and highly-developed infrastructure and programming. Many Pagans like to go their own way — that’s how they got there as Pagans, after all — but building coalitions and working with others gets faster and often better results.
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This controversy has given rise to alternative organizations for youth development, most notable in the Pagan sphere being the Spiral Scouts. However, due to its deep infrastructure and, as Paxton pointed out, excellent facilities, the Boy Scouts are likely to continue to play a part in the lives of Pagans into the future, although it won’t always be tacit. And, while it’s likely that some scout troops will become more inclusive as a result of this decision, it may take a bit longer for openly Pagan-sponsored troops to emerge.