Boy Scouts of America ends national policy excluding gays as leaders, to no one's satisfaction

Quelle surprise. The Boy Scouts of America has faced pressure for decades to end its national policy barring gay men as Scout leaders, finding itself barred from schools and other public venues for its stand even as churches and other civic organizations supported them. Yesterday, BSA’s national office changed its policy to end hiring discrimination within the organization and remove its bar on openly gay volunteer Scout leaders, while allowing church-sponsored troops to make their own leadership choices.  Will that end the controversy? Don’t bet on it:

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.

The national organization will no longer allow discrimination against its paid workers or at BSA-owned facilities. But local troops and councils will be permitted to decide for themselves whether they will allow openly gay volunteer leaders. …

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.

Needless to say, the move made almost no one happy. The Mormon Church declared itself “deeply troubled,” and hinted it may end its long and broad association with BSA as a result:

“The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is deeply troubled by today’s vote by the Boy Scouts of America National Executive Board,” said a statement issued by the Mormon Church moments after the Scouts announced the new policy.

“In spite of a request to delay the vote, it was scheduled at a time in July when members of the church’s governing councils are out of their offices and do not meet,” the statement said. “When the leadership of the church resumes its regular schedule of meetings in August, the century-long association with scouting will need to be examined.”

Mormons use the Boy Scouts as their main nonreligious activity for boys, and the Cub Scout and Boy Scout units they sponsor accounted for 17 percent of all youths in scouting in 2013, the last year for which data have been published. The negative reaction to Monday’s vote took many Boy Scout leaders by surprise; it had been widely assumed that the exemption for religious sponsors would keep them in the fold.

“The church has always welcomed all boys to its scouting units regardless of sexual orientation,” the statement by the church headquarters continued. “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.”

But the people who have put pressure on BSA for decades must be celebrating their big win, right? Er … not exactly:

Wahls also worried about what he called a “political necessity” built into the new policy—the decision to allow the roughly 70 percent of members in the US who are chartered through religious organizations to continue excluding gay adults from hiring.

Wahls suggested this could create a sharply divided organization, while Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin said the policy “undermines” the “historic nature” of the decision.

“Discrimination should have no place in the Boy Scouts, period,” he said.

Geoff McGrath, a former Boy Scout leader in Seattle whose membership was revoked last April because he is gay, also called this element of the policy “atrocious.”

The problem seems to be that BSA did not replace its policy of exclusion with a mandate for inclusion. Practically speaking, such a mandate would be tough to enforce, and would almost certainly cause a collapse of membership. Even this moderate change threatens to alienate one of BSA’s biggest partners, the Mormons, who were a significant force within Scouting even when I was earning merit badges.

It’s not just the Mormons, either, who would have issues with a top-down inclusion edict. Churches sponsor Scout troops at least in part as an extension of faith formation. That is a ministerial function, one which churches guard and monitor carefully in most cases. Certainly some faith communities will have no issues with having gay Scout leaders in their troops, while some will, just as they might with similar positions within a ministerial function. Those that decide to continue the traditional policy probably won’t be much of a surprise, and people can choose to either start an independent troop or find another, more welcoming faith community. Those choices will now exist with BSA’s policy change where they did not before.

Inevitably, though, this will get dragged into court in one context or another. I doubt that independent troops will get to maintain exclusions, especially in states with Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (SOGI) protections exist in law, but churches will have somewhat stronger ground in standing on ministerial prerogatives. The net effect, though, will be to drive religious organizations away from Scouting, to the detriment of all concerned. Be prepared.