Religious leaders divided over Boy Scouts anti-gay policy

Updated
(L-R) Will Oliver, Eagle Scout , Greg Bourke, former Assistant Scoutmaster, Jennifer Tyrrell, former Cub Scout Den Mother, and Eric Andresen, former Scout...
(L-R) Will Oliver, Eagle Scout , Greg Bourke, former Assistant Scoutmaster, Jennifer Tyrrell, former Cub Scout Den Mother, and Eric Andresen, former Scout...
Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Update Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2013, 11:45 a.m. ET: The Boy Scouts of America have delayed a vote on ending the organization’s ban on gay members.

An endorsement, disapproval, distress, and “no comment,” are just some of the reactions from religious leaders around the country as the Boy Scouts of America’s national board prepares to vote to end a decades-old national ban on gay leaders and scouts.

The BSA has long maintained an exclusionary policy that does not allow openly gay men to participate in the Scouts, but a spokesman for the organization announced last week that national leaders were considering reversing the policy. Instead, the new policy would lift the national anti-gay ban and leave the decision on whether to admit gay scouts to the local organizations that charter troops.

The decision to end the BSA’s national ban comes seven months after the organization reaffirmed its stance on excluding gay members. Last July, after two years of internal review, the BSA announced it would not make any changes to its policy. Since then, there has been pressure from inside the BSA to revisit the discussion of ending the ban—from a local chapter openly defying the national policy to Eagle Scouts returning their medals in protest.

But despite support for ending the ban from political leaders, including President Obama, and many active Scouts, there has also been a long history of opposition from faith-based organizations that make up a large part of the Boy Scouts’ membership and leadership. The top five faith-based organizations that contain the largest Scouting membership—the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the United Methodist Church, the Catholic Church, the Presbyterian Church, and the Lutheran Church—have members on the BSA’s national board and have also voiced their support for the BSA’s ban on gays.

In 2000, when the Supreme Court heard arguments in Boy Scouts of America v. Dale, the case that allowed the BSA to maintain its exclusionary policy, the LDS Church announced it would withdraw from Scouting if the Supreme Court ruled that the BSA must allow gay members. In an amicus brief filed by attorney Von G. Keetch on behalf of the LDS Church and other religious organizations, Keetch wrote:

If the appointment of scout leaders cannot be limited to those who live and affirm the sexual standards of BSA and its religious sponsors, the Scouting Movement as now constituted will cease to exist…The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—the largest single sponsor of Scouting units in the United States—would withdraw from Scouting if it were compelled to accept only homosexual scout leaders.


Church leaders have denied the LDS Church would part ways with the Scout program, despite rumors that the Church’s Duty to God program was prepared to replace Scouting. The Duty to God award was first introduced in 2001 and draws its name from a passage in the Book of Mormon that also appears in the Scout Oath. The program was set up to be similar to Boy Scouts, with a checklist of requirements in order to receive the award, but was revised in 2010 with new guidelines and goals, rather than tasks for young men to check off.

But in addressing the rumors, Elder F. Melvin Hammond, who introduced the program, said the Church had no plans to part from the BSA. “The Duty to God program was not meant in any way to diminish Scouting in the Church,” Hammond said in 2003. “One of the primary reasons for the Duty to God program was to pick up the slack for a boy after he gets his Eagle Scout award.”

As the BSA prepares to vote, attention has once again turned to whether or not the LDS Church would part ways from the organization. The BSA’s Great Salt Lake Council announced Monday it opposed ending the ban at this time, arguing that there was no “compelling reason to accelerate this decision ahead of a full analysis.”

In a statement to msnbc.com, the LDS Church, which sponsors the majority of the 5,000 Scout troops in the Salt Lake City area, declined to make any comments about the possible change in policy until the vote is completed. “The Church is aware that BSA is contemplating a change in its leadership policy. However, BSA has not yet made any such change. Until we are formally notified that it has done so, it would be inappropriate for the Church to comment.”

But Affirmation, an international organization of gay and lesbian Mormons, is hopeful LDS Church President Thomas S. Monson, a member of the BSA’s national board, will vote to end the ban. “Affirmation wants LGBT young men to be able to participate fully in the youth programs of their wards, and the current BSA policy would prohibit that, even though Church policy would allow it,” the group wrote in an email to msnbc.com, referring to the Church’s recently created website that explains the Church’s official stance on same-sex attraction and encourages compassion toward the LGBTQ community.

Meanwhile, leaders from other faith-based organizations are adding their voices to the debate ahead of the BSA’s official vote. United Methodist Men executive Gilbert Hanke publicly endorsed the BSA’s proposed changes in order to allow chapters at a local level to decide on their troops’ policies, but Frank S. Page, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee, said he was “gravely distressed” by the possible policy change, and asked congregations to pray that the BSA would uphold its ban on gays.

The three-day meeting of the Boy Scouts’ national board in Texas will include a vote on the issue, and the result is expected to be announced Wednesday.

Host Melissa Harris-Perry’s open letter to the Boy Scouts can be found here.

Religious leaders divided over Boy Scouts anti-gay policy

Updated