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Local Boy Scout council embraces rule change allowing gay leaders

NEW YORK (AP/WISH) – The Boy Scouts of America on Monday ended its blanket ban on gay adult leaders while allowing church-sponsored Scout units to maintain the exclusion for religious reasons.

The new policy, aimed at easing a controversy that has embroiled the Boy Scouts for years, takes effect immediately. It was approved by the BSA’s National Executive Board on a 45-12 vote during a closed-to-the-media teleconference.

“For far too long this issue has divided and distracted us,” said the BSA’s president, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates. “Now it’s time to unite behind our shared belief in the extraordinary power of Scouting to be a force for good.”

The stage had been set for Monday’s action on May 21, when Gates told the Scouts’ national meeting that the long-standing ban on participation by openly gay adults was no longer sustainable. He said the ban was likely to be the target of lawsuits that the Scouts likely would lose.

Two weeks ago, the new policy was approved unanimously by the BSA’s 17-member National Executive Committee. It would allow local Scout units to select adult leaders without regard to sexual orientation – a stance that several Scout councils have already adopted in defiance of the official national policy.

In 2013, after heated internal debate, the BSA decided to allow openly gay youth as scouts, but not gay adults as leaders. Several denominations that collectively sponsor close to half of all Scout units – including the Roman Catholic church, the Mormon church and the Southern Baptist Convention – have been apprehensive about ending the ban on gay adults.

The BSA’s top leaders have pledged to defend the right of any church-sponsored units to continue excluding gays as adult volunteers. But that assurance has not satisfied some conservative church leaders,’

“It’s hard for me to believe, in the long term, that the Boy Scouts will allow religious groups to have the freedom to choose their own leaders,” said the Rev. Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

“In recent years I have seen a definite cooling on the part of Baptist churches toward the Scouts,” Moore said. “This will probably bring that cooling to a freeze.”

Under the BSA’s new policy:

-Prospective employees of the national organization could no longer be denied a staff position on the basis of sexual orientation.

-Gay leaders who were previously removed from Scouting because of the ban would have the opportunity to reapply for volunteer positions.

-If otherwise qualified, a gay adult would be eligible to serve as a Scoutmaster or unit leader.IMPACT IN INDIANA

As the winds of change breeze across the U.S., so too do they for the Boy Scouts of America in Central Indiana.

“The tone of the conversation two years ago, five years ago, was really aggressive towards differing opinions and now that’s really softened a little bit,” said Patrick Sterrett, Scout Executive for the Crossroads of America Council. It represents more than 800 troops totaling more than 30,000 scouts and 8,000 adult leaders and volunteers in Central Indiana.

Sterrett acknowledged that a lot has changed in the state since the ban on gay members was changed. Last year, Indiana lifted its ban on gay marriage. Last spring, lawmakers revised the Religious Freedom Restoration Act to make sure businesses couldn’t discriminate against people based on their sexuality or gender.

“There’s been a lot of conversation here locally and about being inclusive to all and I think the boy scouts just fit in to that conversation and support that entire conversation,” he said.

But even if they support gay scouts and now gay leaders, some sponsors can still stand by their beliefs. Sterrett said 70% of their sponsors are churches or religious groups and have the right to deny gay leaders.

But he said the ultimate decision will always be in the hands of parents and guardians on which troop they want their child to join. He said it will be up to them to decide which troop is the right fit based on values or religious beliefs, and which leaders they trust with their children.

When it comes to the application process for scout leaders, Sterrett said they were never questioned about their sexuality nor will they be questioned after this rule change. He said their top concern is whether or not the applicant is a good role model who lives up to the Boy Scouts of America leadership standards.

“There is still a standard of behavior that’s acceptable or not, regardless of whether you’re gay or heterosexual. We don’t allow people to smoke in front of scouts. Well that doesn’t matter if you’re gay or whether you’re heterosexual, we just don’t allow you to drink and smoke in front of kids, it’s part of our social conduct,” he explained.

We asked Sterrett if the rule change could affect stigma that gay leaders shouldn’t be around children. He said, “You go back two decades, 20 years ago and when the public was a little less informed about homosexuality and wondering ‘well does that mean they’re inclined to be attracted to youth?’ That’s a two decades ago conversation. In today’s age where people are educated a little bit more on the topic it’s less of a concern.”

But now with the controversy about the change in the past, Sterrett is looking forward to living to up to the true purpose of the Boy Scouts.

“We’re here to serve kids, teach them the outdoors, teach them how to get along with each other, teach them how to be leaders,” he said.MORE ON LIFTING THE BAN

Gates, who became the BSA’s president in May 2014, said at the time that he personally would have favored ending the ban on gay adults, but he opposed any further debate after the Scouts’ policymaking body upheld the ban. In May, however, he said that recent events “have confronted us with urgent challenges I did not foresee and which we cannot ignore.”

He cited an announcement by the BSA’s New York City chapter in early April that it had hired Pascal Tessier, the nation’s first openly gay Eagle Scout, as a summer camp leader. Gates also cited broader gay-rights developments and warned that rigidly maintaining the ban “will be the end of us as a national movement.”

The BSA faced potential lawsuits in New York and other states if it continued to enforce its ban, which had been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2000. Since then, the exclusionary policy has prompted numerous major corporations to suspend charitable donations to the Scouts, and has strained relations with some municipalities that cover gays in their non-discrimination codes.

Stuart Upton, a lawyer for the LGBT-rights group Lambda Legal, questioned whether the BSA’s new policy to let church-sponsored units continue to exclude gay adults would be sustainable.

“There will be a period of time where they’ll have some legal protection,” Upton said. “But that doesn’t mean the lawsuits won’t keep coming. … They will become increasingly marginalized from the direction society is going.”

Like several other major youth organizations, the Boy Scouts have experienced a membership decline in recent decades. Current membership, according to the BSA, is about 2.4 million boys and about 1 million adults.

After the 2013 decision to admit gay youth, some conservatives split from the BSA to form a new group, Trail Life USA, which has created its own ranks, badges and uniforms. The group claims a membership of more than 25,000 youths and adults.