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Boy Scouts head Robert Gates won't open new talks on gay Scoutmasters

Former Defense Secretary Bob Gates, President of the Boy Scouts of America, supports lifting the ban on gay scout leaders but respects the vote to keep them out
Robert Gates
Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates addresses the Boy Scouts of America's annual meeting, May 23, 2014, in Nashville, Tenn., after being selected as the organization's new president.

Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates is just days into his tenure as president of the Boy Scouts of America, but he has already stirred up the issue of the organization's ban on gay Scoutmasters.

In interviews this week, Gates said that he supports the inclusion of gay Scoutmasters but respects the Boy Scouts' decision to keep them out of the organization.

"I would have supported having gay Scoutmasters, but at the same time, I fully accept the decision that was democratically arrived at by 1,500 volunteers from across the entire country," Gates told The Associated Press on Friday.

Last year, amid protests on both sides of the debate, the Boy Scouts National Council voted to accept openly gay youth, but not leaders. In standing by the council’s decision, Gates said that rehashing the debate could harm the organization, which has 2.5 million members.

"Given the strong feelings -- the passion -- involved on both sides of this matter, I believe strongly that to re-open the membership issue or try to take last year's decision to the next step would irreparably fracture and perhaps even provoke a formal, permanent split in this movement -- with the high likelihood neither side would subsequently survive on its own," Gates said in remarks at the group's annual meeting in Nashville, Tenn. “That is just a fact of life. And who would pay the price for destroying the Boy Scouts of America? Millions of Scouts today and Scouts yet unborn. We must always put the kids and their interests first. Thus, during my time as president, I will oppose any effort to re-open the issue.”

Still, in an interview with Scouting Magazine published on Thursday, Gates called the reversal of the Boy Scouts' policy on gay boys “an important step forward.”

“No question that it was the right thing. Now we need to turn our attention to further improving the quality of the program, getting more kids into Scouting and re-establishing our unity as a movement,” he told the magazine.

The Boy Scouts has seen its membership declining in recent years, and the controversy over its policies on gay youth and adults has largely sidelined efforts to bolster its membership.

Last year’s vote to allow openly gay youth into the group’s ranks was hailed by LGBT advocates as a hard-fought victory and a step toward bringing full equality to one of the nation’s most prominent leadership institutions. The new policy passed with more than 60% of the council’s vote.

At the time, there was optimism that the vote would be a fulcrum for the acceptance of gay adults.

“We see this proposal as a first step to bringing full equality to the Boy Scouts,” Rich Ferraro, vice president of communications at GLAAD, told msnbc shortly after the vote. “I think we’ll see the ban on gay adults fall pretty quickly after this.”

There was local pushback as the Boy Scouts moved to enforce its ban on gay scout leaders, kicking out members and banning groups affiliated with gay-led troops. And LGBT advocates began putting pressure on major corporations including Target, Chick-Fil-A and Amazon to sever ties with the scouts for their anti-gay policies.

Gates, who became an Eagle Scout at 15, has credited the Boy Scouts with propelling him through nearly 50 years of public service. Some gay-rights groups were optimistic that Gates would take up the cause and chip away at the Scouts' discriminatory policies, much in the way he’d done while leading the Defense Department’s efforts to rid the military of its “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, which banned gay soldiers. Gates said his powers at the Boy Scouts are much more limited.

"The key at this point is to keep focus, again, on the top priority, which is, how do we develop the best possible program for kids, and how do we keep their interests at the forefront?" Gates said.