Taking a step in the direction of equal treatment, Boy Scouts of America (BSA) announced today (5/23/2013) that it would admit openly gay Scouts. The change is the result of a 61-38% vote by the BSA’s National Council. This body agreed to accept the following proposed language: “No youth may be denied membership in the Boy Scouts of America on the basis of sexual orientation or preference alone.” At least for now, the ban against openly gay Scout leaders remains in place.
Given the margin of victory, it appears that this change would likely not have happened without support from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church). The LDS Church is by far the largest organization that charters Scouting units associated with the BSA. Based on statistics from the end of 2012, the LDS Church operates 37,856 chartered units, representing 36% of all 106,200 chartered units. Scouts from these units constitute about 17% of all Scouts. In addition, many of the top BSA leaders are Mormon. Thus, the LDS Church has an outsized influence on the decision-making at BSA.
The church came out early in favor of the current language, apparently signaling an interest in “consistent standards for all BSA partners, recognition that Scouting exists to serve and benefit youth rather than Scout leaders, [and] a single standard of moral purity for youth in the program.” Thus, this policy appears to be exactly what the LDS Church wanted. Within hours of the vote that lifted the discriminatory policy, the church already apparently had a letter on hand in support of the new policy, signed by the church’s First Presidency, which will now be distributed to local congregations.
Interestingly, the church’s statement reveals, “Sexual orientation has not previously been—and is not now—a disqualifying factor for boys who want to join Latter-day Saint Scout troops. Willingness to abide by standards of behavior continues to be our compelling interest.” Apparently, the LDS Church had been quietly at odds with BSA policy all along, and the vote today merely brings the BSA into conformity with longstanding LDS policy. If it is true that the LDS Church was violating this policy all along, one has to wonder whether the BSA was oblivious, or was intentionally looking the other way while this was happening. That would not be surprising, given that the BSA board members, who are drawn from corporate America, have been pushing for this change.
The church’s statement also raises the question of whether the church continues to disregard BSA’s continuing discriminatory policy against gay and lesbian Scout leaders. LDS Scouting policy stipulates, “Worthy adults, whether members of the Church or not, may be called to serve as Scouting leaders.” (§ 8.5). LDS policy currently considers gay and lesbian Mormons to be “worthy” so long as they are celibate. (Church Handbook of Instruction, Book 1 § 17.3.6). Conceivably, the LDS Church might get behind a BSA-wide policy that requires gay and lesbian Scout leaders to be celibate. Or perhaps the church might also get behind a policy that allows local units to follow their own policies regarding gay and lesbian Scout leaders. That way, the LDS Church can have its own policy, and other organizations who feel differently can have a different policy. If an openly gay or lesbian parent or other adult wants to be involved in Scouting, there would at least be some units where they will be welcomed.
As an Eagle Scout, I’m happy for the gay Scouts who will no longer be excluded. I am also happy that my church seems to have effectively sponsored this change. However, I don’t think the spirit and ideals of Scouting will be fully honored until openly gay and lesbian Scout leaders are welcomed into the Scouting program.