End of Boy Scouts' ban on gays prompts elation and alarm

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Wednesday, July 29, 2015

HOUSTON -- The lifting of the Boy Scouts of America's ban on gay adult leaders prompted some gay Eagle Scouts to quickly rejoin the movement on Tuesday. But the Mormon church - the nation's largest sponsor of Scout units - warned that it may split away to form a global scouting organization of its own.

The contrasting reactions followed the BSA national executive board's 45-12 vote on Monday to lift the nationwide ban while allowing church-sponsored Scout units to continue excluding gay adults.

Across the country, scores of gay Eagle Scouts signed forms with the advocacy group Scouts for Equality, expressing interest in rejoining the Boy Scouts as volunteers.

Among them was Charles Spain, a 56-year-old attorney in Houston who had not worn a Scout uniform since his post-college years as an in-the-closet Scout employee before he entered law school. On Tuesday morning, he registered as an adult leader with the local Scout troop that his 13-year-old son belongs to, then hurried out to buy a uniform and posted a photo of it on his Facebook page.

"I haven't worn a Scout uniform in 30 years," said Spain. "I support and believe in the Scouting program. It's the best youth program that's ever been invented."

The mood was different at the Salt Lake City headquarters of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which described itself as "deeply troubled" by the BSA's decision to lift the nationwide ban.

Just two weeks earlier, Mormon leaders indicated they were comfortable with the pending policy change. But in a strongly worded statement issued after Monday's final vote, Mormon officials described the admission of openly gay leaders as "inconsistent with the doctrines of the Church."

One possibility, church officials suggested, would be for the Mormons to form their own worldwide scouting movement.

The Mormons' statement noted that the church has members in 170 nations, many of them without scouting programs. "Those worldwide needs combined with this vote by the BSA National Executive Board will be carefully reviewed by the leaders of the Church in the weeks ahead," the statement added.

At Boy Scout headquarters in Texas, reaction to the Mormons' declaration was muted.

The BSA issued its own statement expressing appreciation for its long relationship with the Mormon church, and asserting, "America's youth are better off when they are in Scouting."

A conservative activist in Utah, Gayle Ruzicka, applauded the Mormons' tough reaction and noted that the church already ran its own scouting-style program for young women.

"There's not any reason why the church can't start their own boys' program - one that will teach the same things," she said.

Brad Daw, a Republican legislator in Utah who's been involved in Scouting since he was 11, said he was disheartened by the BSA vote to allow gay leaders, but also saddened about the "pretty big hint" by church leaders of a Mormon exodus from Boy Scouting.

Given that most units in Utah are Mormon-affiliated, Daw said, being part of the BSA is "an opportunity for us to welcome boys from other faiths to be part of the Scouts."

The Mormon church - which serves more than 427,000 boys in nearly 38,000 scout units - still opposes gay marriage and believes homosexuality is a sin. But the religion's leaders have shifted their tone on gay rights in recent years, away from harsh rhetoric and toward compassion and acceptance of gays and lesbians.

The church was deeply involved in compromise legislation enacted in Utah in March that extends nondiscrimination protections to gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people, while providing exemptions for religious groups and for the Boy Scouts.

After the Mormons, the next largest sponsors of U.S. Scout units are the United Methodist Church and the Roman Catholic Church.

The Methodists' General Commission on United Methodist Men said decisions on whether or not to accept gay adult leaders would rest with individual churches.

"Local churches will continue to select and approve Scout leaders based on the church's Christian convictions and the evaluation of the character and skills of potential Scout leaders," the commission said. "No church will be required to accept any volunteer as a Scout leader simply because of the new policy."

Catholic Bishop Robert Guglielmone of Charleston, South Carolina - who helps oversee Catholic scouting programs - said he and his colleagues were "cautiously optimistic" that ties with the BSA could be maintained even though the church is wary of accepting adult leaders who are open about being gay.

"We've always had the right to select leaders for the units that we charter," Guglielmone said. "My concern is whether that right will be upheld."

"Wholesale removal (from the BSA) - I don't see as something that would happen," he said. "We don't have the resources to set up those kind of programs on their own. We just have to see how it all plays out."

Eric Hetland, a 25-year-old Eagle Scout from Aurora, Illinois, had no interest in waiting. He was one of many former scouts quickly heeding the call from Scouts for Equality to "rejoin the fold" and help build a more inclusive Boy Scouts movement.

On Tuesday morning, just hours after celebrating the lifting of the BSA's ban, Hetland registered as an assistant scoutmaster with a Scout troop in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park.

Hetland, who works at a high school science academy, had been involved in scouting from age 5 to 22, when he came out as bisexual and was not asked back to a job at a Scout summer camp.

"As I was growing up as a teenager, and realizing I had same-sex attractions, there was always a fear in me that I would be outed," Hetland recalled. "I so cherished the program."

In Utah, gay Eagle Scout Drew Reese also is hoping to become a Scout leader. He grew up as a Mormon scout, though he's now left the church.

The Boy Scouts should be a "big tent," he said. "Now that the ban is completely removed, we can teach the youth what it means to be respectful of everyone."

Also celebrating the policy change was Jen Tyrrell of Bridgeport, Ohio, who was removed as den mother of her son's Tiger Scouts pack in 2012 because she is a lesbian.

"I've worked for years now to make sure that no parent has to feel the way I did when I looked my son in the eyes and said, 'I can't be part of Scouting because of who I am,'" Tyrrell said in an email Tuesday.

"This decision strengthens Scouting and strengthens America."