By Rick Dandes
The Daily Item
The Boys Scouts of America is considering a dramatic retreat from its controversial policy of excluding gays as leaders and youth members.
Under the change now being discussed — and which might take effect as early as next week — the different religious and civic groups that sponsor Scout units would be able to decide for themselves how to address the issue, either maintaining an exclusion of gays or opening up their membership.
Monday’s announcement of the possible change comes after years of protests over the policy — including petition campaigns that have prompted some corporations to suspend donations to the Boy Scouts.
Under the proposed change, said BSA spokesman Deron Smith, “the Boy Scouts would not, under any circumstances, dictate a position to units, members or parents.”
Essentially, Smith continued, the BSA would remove the national membership restriction regarding sexual orientation. “This would mean there would no longer be any national policy regarding sexual orientation, but that the chartered organizations that oversee and deliver Scouting would accept membership and select leaders consistent with their organization’s mission, principles or religious beliefs. BSA members and parents would be able to choose a local unit which best meets the needs of their families.”
“This is not a new issue with BSA,” noted Jon Brennan, Scouts executive, with the Susquehanna Council Boy Scouts of America, based in Williamsport. The Susquehanna Council serves more than 2,500 youths through 1,200 adult volunteers in Snyder, Northumberland, Clinton, Union and Lycoming counties.
Brennan said that no matter what the National Council decides at its meeting, “We’ll adhere to it. We’re part of the national organization, so there is no question about following their dictates.”
But Scout leaders in two Valley towns, when reached Monday, declined to comment, pending a definitive statement by the executive council.
The BSA, which celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2010, has long excluded gays and atheists.
A change in the policy toward atheists is not being considered, and the BSA continues to view “Duty to God” as one of its basic principles.
The Scouts had reaffirmed the no-gays policy as recently as last year, and appeared to have strong backing from conservative religious denominations — notably the Mormons, Roman Catholics and Southern Baptists — which sponsor large numbers of Scout units. Under the proposed change, they could continue excluding gays.
Protests over the no-gays policy gained momentum in 2000, when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the BSA’s right to exclude gays. Scout units lost sponsorships by public schools and other entities that adhered to nondiscrimination policies, and several local Scout councils made public their displeasure with the policy.
More recently, amid petition campaigns, shipping giant UPS Inc. and drug-manufacturer Merck announced that they were halting donations from their charitable foundations to the Boy Scouts as long as the no-gays policy was in force.
The announcement came shortly after new data showed that membership in the Cub Scouts — the BSA’s biggest division — dropped sharply last year, and was down nearly 30 percent over the past 14 years.
According to figures provided by the organization, Cub Scout ranks dwindled by 3.4 percent, from 1,583,166 in 2011 to 1,528,673 in 2012. That’s down from 2.17 million in 1998.
The Boy Scouts attribute the decline largely to broad social changes, including the allure of video games and the proliferation of youth sports leagues and other options for after-school activities.
The BSA’s overall “traditional youth membership” — Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts and Venturers — totaled 2,658,794 in 2012, compared to more than 4 million in peak years of the past. There were 910,668 Boy Scouts last year, a tiny increase from 2011, while the ranks of Venturers — a program for youths 14 and older— declined by 5.5 percent.
n With reporting by The Associated Press.