It began with hope for change, and resulted in a letter written with a heavy heart. For Rev. Ken Jones of Yakima, Wash., the choice to return his Eagle Scout medal was not an easy one, but a necessary response to a decades-old exclusionary policy from the Boy Scouts of America.
The BSA has maintained a policy that prohibits openly gay individuals from serving in leadership positions and in its ranks. Each time the policy has been challenged and questioned over the years, the BSA has reaffirmed its position.
After the most recent challenge, which resulted an 11-member committee last month once again affirming it would uphold the BSA’s policy, some Scouts decided to turn in their medals.
‘I beg God to forgive me’
For Rev. Jones the many positive experiences and happy memories of being a Scout were not enough to erase some of the darker moments that shed a light on the BSA’s exclusionary policy.
In his letter to the BSA National Executive Board, Jones recalls a time when he and his fellow Scouts bullied another Scout to the point of tears.
“When I look back on that, it fees like the policy that they [the BSA] have about exclusion is something that really encourages kids to participate in that kind of bullying,” Jones said in an interview with Lean Forward.
Jones’ decision to return his Eagle Scout medal was a choice he never thought he’d have to make in his 35 years of affiliation with the BSA. Receiving his Eagle was symbolic for Jones, and a high honor that many Scouts wear with pride to show their commitment to Scout Law, which dictates that a Scout is trustworthy and loyal, among other things.
Jones said he and members of his religious community (Jones is a Universalist) often engaged in discussions with the BSA to try to encourage the organization to change its policy.
But after watching the organization continue to reinforce its policy, he felt compelled to act. Jones discovered other Scouts online who were returning their medals, and decided it was something he needed to do.
“This is the right thing to do at this point,” Jones said. After announcing his decision to his congregation and community, he drafted a letter and sent it to the Board.
In his letter, Jones concluded:
Your latest decision to re-affirm a century-old policy that has no place in this world has prompted me, after thirty-five years, to let go of this medal, a symbol of one of the first major achievements of my life. I return it mindful of what Rev. Martin Luther King wrote in his Letter from Birmingham City Jail: “If I have said anything in this letter that overstates the truth and indicates an unreasonable impatience, I beg you to forgive me. If I have said anything that understates the truth and indicates my having a patience that allows me to settle for anything less than brotherhood, I beg God to forgive me.”
Jones hopes that the movement of Scouts returning their badges will change the BSA’s policy and encourage it to be more compassionate toward gay individuals. “If they don’t change their policy, then maybe there can be an alternative.”
Finding an alternative
That alternative might not be too far away for families who want to separate themselves from the BSA. In Oak Park, Ill., about a dozen families are working to create an organization that is similar to Scouting, but minus the exclusionary policy toward gay individuals.
“There is no formal organization yet,” Rob Breymaier, a former Scout leader who is helping to organize the new group, explained. He said that the parents involved have been meeting and creating a curriculum.
Breymaier joined as a kid as a Cub Scout, received his Eagle, and remained involved as an adult leader for about 10 years.
When he moved to Illinois from his hometown of Toledo, Ohio, he began to distance himself from the organization as controversy over the BSA’s policy began to make headlines. Breymaier said he was always aware of the policy, but chose not to enforce it.
“I thought about sending my pin in,” Breymaier said, “but I didn’t do it at the time because I just didn’t want to be involved.”
That changed last year when Breymaier’s son decided he wanted to join Cub Scouts. Breymaier agonized over the decision, but ultimately allowed his son to join. He served as a den leader until the BSA’s ruling last month to uphold its policy—a ruling that Breymaier called “frustrating and maddening.”
“I spent my whole career working on civil rights,” Breymaier, who is the executive director of the Oak Park Regional Housing Center, said. “I couldn’t really continue with the organization.”
He pulled his son out of Cub Scouts and turned in his own medal.
Breymaier said he doesn’t expect he will receive an individual response from the National Board.
Deron Smith, a BSA spokesman, recently told the AP that the BSA was disappointed when individuals chose to return their medals because of the organization’s policy, but that it respected each person’s right to do so.
As the BSA continues to defend its policy, more Scouts are speaking out.
“Given their own standards — treat others how you want to be treated, be respectful—this is not in line with their own principles,” Wahls told msnbc’s Thomas Roberts back in May.
Not all Scouts agree with returning their medals, but those that do are writing letters, mailing in badges, and sharing their experiences through various media platforms including Facebook and Tumblr.
Jones and Breymaier both expressed a certainty that the BSA would not change its policy anytime soon, but believed that their actions still contributed to a powerful statement from their fellow Scouts.
“If we can let the BSA know that there is significant disapproval of their policy from within the Boy Scouts, then that’s what’s going to be what makes the change,” Breymaier said.