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Gates: Consider Allowing Gay Boy Scout Leaders

Boy Scouts of America

Delegates at last week’s annual meeting of the Boy Scouts of America in Atlanta heard a call for an end to the organization’s ban on gay troop leaders.

BSA President and former Defense Sec Robert Gates told the meeting that they can neither overlook the growing in-house challenges to current leadership policy, nor what’s going on nationwide.

“I remind you of the recent debates we’ve seen in Indiana, Arkansas and elsewhere over discrimination based on sexual orientation, not to mention the impending Supreme Court decision on gay marriage,” said Gates. “The one thing we cannot do, is put our heads in the sand and pretend this challenge will go away, or abate. Quite the opposite is happening.”

With dozens of states passing employment equality laws, the Boy Scouts could face one or more court challenges to drop its ban on gay leaders. Gates says they don’t want to go there.

“If we wait for the courts to act, we could end up with a broad ruling that could forbid any kind of membership standard, including our foundational belief in our duty to God, and our focus on serving the specific needs of boys” Gates said. “Waiting for the courts is a gamble with huge stakes.”

Spencer Page, executive director of the BSA’s Gulf Coast Council in Pensacola, was in attendance. For now, he says, Gates’ idea is just that – an idea.

“I think what most people, at least the circle that I was in at that time, was just kind of recounting the fallout on the issues we had to deal with two years ago,” said Page.

In 2013, the Boy Scouts of America voted to begin admitting gay members under the age of 18, ending a years-long debate over membership guidelines. Sixty-one percent of voting members approved the change, but Page says the Gulf Coast Council took a major financial hit and lost some unit sponsors.   

“Close to $200,000 in annual giving, that we can’t attribute to anything else but that membership change,” Page said. “At the time we lost seven [units] and we’ve replaced them all now. We either restarted that unit, or if there were still kids, parents and leaders that were interested we found them another ‘charter partner’ -- another home.”

The 2013 policy change also led to formation of the group “Trail Life.” It’s a Biblically- based organization for boys, whose parents were put off by the BSA’s inclusion of openly gay scouts. Robert Gates said in Atlanta that any BSA unit, secular or religious, should be able to make their own leadership choices.

But in the end, BSA President Robert Gates offered no formal proposal. Instead, he left the door open for discussion, debate and input with no set timeline for action.

“I’m not asking the national board for any action to change the current policy at the meeting,” said Gates. “But I must speak as plainly and bluntly to you, as I spoke to presidents when I was Director of CIA and Sec. of Defense. We must deal with the world as it is; not as we might wish it would be.”

Meanwhile, membership in the Boy Scouts of America continues in a decade-long decline, and allowing gay members appears to be exacerbating it. Figures from the BSA show about 2.4 million members in 2014 – the first year gays could join. That’s a nearly 7.5% drop from the previous year.