NEW YORK – Searching for compromise on a divisive issue, the Boy Scouts of America is proposing to partially lift its long-standing exclusion of gays – allowing them as youth members but continuing to bar them as adult leaders.
The proposal, unveiled Friday after weeks of private leadership deliberations, will be submitted to the roughly 1,400 voting members of the BSA’s National Council during the week of May 20 at a meeting in Texas.
The key part of the resolution says no youth may be denied membership in the Scouts “on the basis of sexual orientation or preference alone.” A ban would continue on leadership roles for adults who are openly gay or lesbian.
Gay-rights groups, which had demanded a complete lifting of the ban, criticized the proposal as inadequate.
“Until every parent and young person have the same opportunity to serve, the Boy Scouts will continue to see a decline in both membership and donations,” said Rich Ferraro, a spokesman for the gay-rights watchdog group GLAAD.
Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, said the BSA was too timid.
“What message does this resolution send to the gay Eagle Scout who, as an adult, wants to continue a lifetime of Scouting by becoming a troop leader?” he asked.
Some conservative groups assailed the proposal from the opposite direction, saying the ban should be kept in its entirety.
“The policy is incoherent,” said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council. “The proposal says, in essence, that homosexuality is morally acceptable until a boy turns 18 – then, when he comes of age, he’s removed from the Scouts.”
Perkins predicted that the proposed change, if adopted, would subject the BSA to “crippling lawsuits” because it would no longer be able to argue that excluding gays was integral to its basic principles.
Indeed, the BSA has anticipated hostile reaction, estimating that easing the ban on gay adults might prompt between 100,000 and 350,000 members to leave the organization, which now has 2.6 million youth members.
In January, the BSA said it was considering a plan to give sponsors of local Scout units the option of admitting gays as both youth members and adult leaders or continuing to exclude them.
On Friday, the BSA said it changed course in part because of surveys sent out starting in February to about 1 million members of the Scouting community.
The review, said a BSA statement, “created an outpouring of feedback” from 200,000 respondents, some supporting the exclusion policy and others favoring a change.
“While perspectives and opinions vary significantly, parents, adults in the Scouting community and teens alike tend to agree that youth should not be denied the benefits of Scouting,” the statement said.
As a result, the BSA’s Executive Committee drafted the compromise resolution.
“The proposed resolution also reinforces that Scouting is a youth program, and any sexual conduct, whether heterosexual or homosexual, by youth of Scouting age is contrary to the virtues of Scouting,” the statement said.
The BSA described its survey as “the most comprehensive listening exercise in its history.”
In a summary of the findings, it said respondents overall supported the BSA’s current policy of excluding gays by a margin of 61 percent to 34 percent, while a majority of younger parents and teens opposed the policy.
It said overwhelming majorities of parents, teens and members of the Scouting community felt it would be unacceptable to deny an openly gay Scout an Eagle Scout Award solely because of his sexual orientation.
Included in the survey were dozens of churches and other religious organizations that sponsor a majority of Scout units. The BSA said many of the religious organizations expressed concern over having gay adult leaders and were less concerned about gay youth members.
Many Scout units are sponsored by relatively conservative denominations that have supported the ban on gays in the past – notably the Roman Catholic Church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Southern Baptist churches.
A Southern Baptist Convention spokesman, Roger Oldham, said the SBC would prefer that the Boy Scouts maintain the ban on both gay youth and adults. LDS spokesman Michael Purdy said Mormon leaders would study the new proposal before commenting, and there was no immediate public reaction from Catholic officials who have been dealing with the BSA membership issue.
The BSA survey tried to gauge the proposal’s effect on financial support. Local Scout councils said 51 percent of their major donors opposed easing the ban, while a majority of Fortune 500 companies supported a change.
In another revealing section of the survey, the BSA reported feedback from 30 national youth organizations and civic groups, many of them partners of the Scouts in various endeavors.
Of the 30 organizations, 28 urged the Scouts to lift the ban, and many warned that their partnerships might end if the ban remained.
The BSA also consulted four experts in the field of child sex abuse prevention. The four conveyed a “nearly universal opinion” within their field that homosexuality is not a risk factor for the sexual abuse of children.
Since January, the Scouts have come under intense pressure from activists and advocacy groups on both sides of the membership debate.
In Indiana, for example, there’s an ongoing campaign demanding that the United Way withhold funding from the Scouts until the ban is lifted. In California, the state Senate is considering a bill aimed at pressuring the BSA to lift the ban by making the organization ineligible for nonprofit tax breaks.
Among the leaders of the anti-ban campaign is Jennifer Tyrrell, an Ohio mother who was ousted as her 7-year-old son’s Cub Scout den leader because she is gay.
“The Boy Scouts are once again forcing me to look my children in the eyes and tell them that our family isn’t good enough,” Tyrrell said in a statement Friday.
Another leading opponent of the ban is Eagle Scout Zach Wahls, a 21-year-old activist raised by lesbian mothers in Iowa. He pledged to continue his advocacy, yet welcomed the proposed lifting of the ban on gay youths.
“Today, this is about the kids, and we are glad that the Boy Scouts of America is taking this historic step forward,” he said in an e-mail.
On the other side, the Family Research Council has been circulating an online petition urging the BSA to keep the ban. And in Utah, the Boy Scouts’ Great Salt Lake Council – one of the largest in the country with 73,400 youth members – said a survey showed that more than 80 percent of its leaders opposed lifting the ban.
John Stemberger, an Eagle Scout and conservative activist from Florida, assailed the new proposal as a retreat in the face of gay-rights pressure.
“We urge the National Council to vote against this resolution and uphold the time-tested membership policy of the Boy Scouts,” Stemberger said.