Boy Scouts can now be openly gay—and the LDS Church wants it that way

Old black and White photograph of one Scout helping another injured Scout

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.

Might the LDS Church be okay with a more inclusive policy on gay Scouts and leaders?

Sketch of three Boy Scouts in an animated conversationA few days ago, the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) announced that it was considering changing its policy to allow local Scout-sponsoring organizations to make their own decisions on whether or not to ban gay Scouts and leaders from their troops. Wednesday, after pressure to delay the decision from several scouting organizations, most notably the Great Salt Lake Council in Utah, the BSA decided to delay the decision until its annual meeting in May 2013.

There has been speculation that much of the pressure on the BSA came from the LDS Church, but apparently, not so. In a news release issued Thursday, the church said that it had not yet taken a position on the proposed policy change, and denied that it had been involved in any effort to prevent such a change. It encouraged people “not to speculate about our position or to assume that individual Latter-day Saints inside or outside the Scouting movement speak for the Church.”

There is a good chance that the LDS Church’s eventual position on the BSA’s proposed change might surprise us. A few years ago, the LDS Church baffled many conservative Mormons by supporting two city ordinances in Salt Lake City that prohibited housing discrimination against gays and lesbians. And just Thursday, conservative Mormons had further reason to be baffled when it was reported that the LDS Church was quietly seeking to extend Salt Lake City’s anti-housing-discrimination protections statewide throughout Utah. I suspect that Mormon clergy overall tend to be more sympathetic toward LGBT issues than many of the rank-and-file. I think this is true of most churches. It is difficult to be overly judgmental and dismissive of people you actually know, who are in your flock and for whom you have a duty to love and serve. One might imagine that it was his prior service as a bishop and Stake president that influenced 2012 Presidential candidate Mitt Romney to come out in opposition to the BSA’s ban on gay Scouts.

The BSA’s proposed policy change actually squares with current LDS policy on sexual orientation. Openly gay and lesbian Mormons are officially welcome within LDS congregations, even in leadership positions or as full-time missionaries, as long as they remain celibate. For example, Mitch Mayne, an openly gay Mormon, was called in 2011 to serve in an LDS bishopric in San Francisco. In the LDS Church, being a Scout leader is essentially a church leadership calling. There does not appear to be any official prohibition on the calling of celibate gay or lesbian Scout leaders in the LDS Church, or the participation of gay scouts.

If the LDS Church does not intend to discriminate against celibate gay or lesbian boys and leaders, then the current BSA policy is problematic. The current BSA policy is one of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” So gay Scouts and leaders can remain in the organization as long as they are closeted. But when the come out, they are expelled from Scouting regardless of whether or not they are celibate. Thus, while a Mormon Scouting troop might want to include a celibate, openly-gay boy as a member, the BSA would not currently allow that.

My sense is that the LDS Church wants to have complete control over whatever accommodation it decides to make on the issue of sexual orientation of Scouts and Scout leaders. In a previous post, I suggested that if the LDS Church were required not to discriminate against openly-gay Scouts and leaders, that the church might part ways with Scouting. However, I don’t think that is the case so long as the LDS Church can frame its own policy, so that celibacy, rather than closetedness, becomes the criterion for admission of gays and lesbians to the Scouting program.

Could LDS Church involvement in Boy Scouts be coming to an end?

It now appears that at least one board member of the Boy Scouts of America is thinking of overturning the organization’s traditional policy of barring gays and lesbians from admission either as leaders or as scouts. James Turley, CEO of Ernst & Young, has said he is working to “encourage dialogue” on the issue. The issue of revisiting this policy came to a head when Jennifer Tyrell, a lesbian mother, was ousted as a den leader in April 2012. Seeking to change the policy, she launched an online petition directed to Randall Stephenson, CEO of AT&T, who is also on the board of the BSA. Speaking for AT&T, Stephenson implied that the corporation did not agree with the policy, but he argued “that change at any organization must come from within to be successful and sustainable.”

From near the beginning, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been a proud sponsor of BSA, and remains the largest single sponsor of scouting units. In 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court case BSA v. Dale upheld the First Amendment right of the BSA, as a private organization, to discriminate against homosexuals. During that case, the LDS Church led a small group of other churches in submitting an amicus (“friend of the court”) brief in support of the right to ban gays and lesbians. This brief, written by Von G. Keetch, a Salt Lake City attorney the church has hired on other occasions, suggested that the churches might “part company with Scouting altogether” (p. 25) if sexual orientation became an impermissible basis for discrimination by BSA. In a statement to the Salt Lake Tribune, Keetch suggested more positively that the LDS Church would withdraw from Scouting in those circumstances. Keetch, of course, is not part of the LDS hierarchy, and that would not be his decision to make.

But that was the year 2000. Since then, the LDS Church has softened its policy toward LGBT people, and allows gay and lesbian Mormons to function in positions within the LDS Church, so long as they remain celibate. I have heard rumors that certain local church leaders have barred gay men from positions that deal with children or youth, although I cannot find reference to any church-wide polity to that effect. Such a policy, if it exists, would be highly controversial, because it feeds into a stereotype that LGBT people are pedophiles, or that they have an agenda to convert children to their “cause.” For the most part, Americans have increasingly been willing to accept LGBT people within positions of influence with their children, without cause for alarm. For example, according to polls, most modern Americans believe schools should not have the right to fire gay or lesbian teachers. But Mormon attitudes tend to change more slowly than American attitudes in general.

Of course, if the LDS Church were to pull out of Scouting, the only opinion that really matters is the sometimes-unpredictable opinion of church’s leaders. The LDS Church has had a long history with Scouting, but the loss of Scouting would not be catastrophic. Long before Scouting was even invented, the LDS Church had created a Young Men’s Mutual Improvement Association (YMMIA). When the BSA came alone in the early 20th century, the YMMIA essentially merged with the Scouting program and became an arm of the BSA. For reasons that have never been clearly articulated, the church’s complementary girls’ program did not merge with the Girl Scouts, and the LDS Church has never supported Girl Scouting, even though it maintains a Young Women organization that serves many of the same purposes.

It would not be far-fetched to expect that if the BSA decided to admit gays and lesbians, that the LDS Church would dissassociate itself with the organization and revert to the YMMIA model. That would not be a huge change, because the church already operates what it calls its “Young Men” organization for boys 12 and older, independently of Scouting. Unlike Scouting, however, the Young Men organization is designed for the spiritual needs of boys, while Scouting is designed more for recreation and to train boys in leadership and self-confidence. If the LDS Church left Scouting, the Young Men organization would have to serve dual roles, as does the present Young Women organization. What would change? Probably not much, except that the young men would no longer be wearing uniforms and badges.

I think it is inevitable that BSA will at some point reverse its policy of discrimination. But as an Eagle Scout with fond memories of scouting, I would hope that that the LDS Church would not pull out of Scouting for that reason. Realistically, any BSA policy change is not going to change how Scouting operates on a local LDS Church level. As far as I know, BSA has never required that local units appoint leaders, or admit scouts, in a way that contradicts the religious values of the sponsoring organization. All that would likely change is that Scouting units would be free to admit gays and lesbians if they chose to do so. So in some non-LDS Scouting units, there would be leaders and scouts who are openly gay or lesbian. That would not affect Scouting in the LDS Church.

Perhaps the LDS Church mighth even see a change by BSA as a positive outcome. There are undoubtedly active Mormon gays and lesbians whose skills would make them ideal leaders of local LDS Scouting units. But BSA policy currently prohibits these men and women from participation. A policy change would give the LDS Church more flexibility to appoint gay and lesbian leaders on a local level. It would also allow openly gay Mormon youth the opportunity to participate in Scouting, which could be a positive influence on their lives.