Facing declining membership, legal threats, and – likely, above all – “rapid changes in society,” the top policy-making body of the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) on Monday voted 45-12 to formally end its longstanding blanket ban on openly gay adult leaders.
The move comes two years after the 105-year-old youth organization approved a policy welcoming gay kids – though still excluding gay adults – and just one month after the nation’s highest court handed down a landmark ruling that found same-sex couples have a constitutional right to wed.
Monday’s vote, in which members of the BSA’s National Executive Board ratified a resolution amending the group’s adult leadership standards, follows the unanimous approval earlier this month by the 17-member National Executive Committee to fully lift restrictions based on sexual orientation, while maintaining exceptions for religious troops. Now that the 80-member governing board has accepted those changes, they will take effect immediately.
The new policy will bar discrimination based on sexual orientation in all paying jobs, and allow gay adults to serve in the BSA as den leaders, scoutmasters, and camp counselors. However, it will also give church-based units leeway to pick adult leaders in line with their religious teachings.
That compromise was undoubtedly struck to appease the BSA’s more conservative partners, 70% of which are religious organizations, according to the group. But it has also left some gay rights activists dissatisfied.
“This is not a bold measure,” 44-year-old James Dale, who 15 years ago unsuccessfully challenged the BSA’s exclusionary policy in a high-profile Supreme Court case, said recently in an interview with NJ.com. “A bold measure would be ending discrimination.”
Still, many see the new policy as an historic achievement.
“For decades, the Boy Scouts of America’s ban on gay adults has stood as a towering example of explicit, institutional homophobia in one of America’s most important and recognizable civic organizations,” said Zach Wahls, an Eagle Scout and the executive director of the pro-gay group, Scouts for Equality, in a statement earlier this month. “While this policy change is not perfect—BSA’s religious chartering partners will be allowed to continue to discriminate against gay adults—it is difficult to overstate the importance of today’s announcement.”
For years, the BSA’s ban on gay members has created problems for the organization that, as the gay rights movement progressed, became an increasingly realistic threat of extinction. Following the Executive Committee’s move to adopt the new policy two weeks ago, members released a statement saying they came to their decision “[a]s a result of the rapid changes in society and increasing legal challenges at the federal, state, and local levels.”
In April 2012, Jennifer Tyrell rose to national prominence after she was ousted from her position as her 7-year-old son’s den leader for being a lesbian. Soon afterwards, corporate sponsors like Intel, UPS, and the Merck Foundation suspended all funding to the BSA until the organization agreed to end its anti-gay ban. Prominent attorney David Boies then threatened to sue the BSA earlier this year if the group decided to rescind a job offer to Pascal Tessier, an 18-year-old openly gay Eagle Scout who in April was hired by the Greater New York Councils as a camp counselor. Tessier never lost his job; after seeing youth membership fall in 2014 by 7%, the BSA was likely in no rush to jump into another high-profile lawsuit.
“We must deal with the world as it is, not as we might wish it to be,” said BSA President Robert Gates during the group’s national annual business meeting last May. As defense secretary, Gates oversaw the end of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the military’s former ban on openly gay service members. And when Gates became the BSA’s president a year ago, gay rights advocates were optimistic he’d bring the same type of change to the organization.
“We can act on our own or we can be forced to act,” Gates said of the membership standards. “But either way, I suspect we don’t have a lot of time.”