Trail Life USA, alternative to Boy Scouts, warns churches before BSA vote on gay leaders

by Gregory Tomlin |

(Photo courtesy of Trail Life USA)Representatives of Trail Life USA and the American Heritage Girls, Christian alternatives to the Boy Scouts of America and the Girl Scouts, form a ministry alliance June 25, 2015. Trail Life's leadership has issued a warning to churches in advance of the Boy Scouts formal vote on accepting gay adult leaders on Monday. The warning and an accompanying legal memorandum, written by the former legal counsel to the Boy Scouts, says churches who dismiss gay adult leaders or refuse to allow them to join a chartered BSA troop will face challenges from the courts.

ORLANDO, Fla. (Christian Examiner) – Trail Life USA, the organization founded as an alternative to the Boy Scouts of America after that organization voted to accept gay scouts in 2013 has issued a warning to churches in advance of the BSA's formal vote next Monday to accept gay adult leaders.

The warning, in the form of a lengthy legal memorandum describing the legal challenges that will face churches enforcing a conservative Christian membership policy, was sent in an email to Trail Life USA supporters July 23. It was also posted to the group's website.

In a note accompanying the memorandum, the organization's CEO Mark Hancock said his organization's board, staff and members have "no desire to dishonor the tremendous legacy of the Boy Scouts of America."

"However, our love for God's church and our concern for the welfare of boys compels us to release the following statement and accompanying position paper," Hancock said.

The statement Hancock referenced included comment from John Stemberger, Trail Life's chairman of the board and an attorney in Orlando, Fla. Stemberger was instrumental in founding the BSA alternative.

He said the organization was greatly saddened by the BSA's resolution, which will be the subject of a vote during the BSA's national executive board meeting on Monday, July 27.

"This change in membership policy places the churches and religious institutions who sponsor BSA troops at greater legal risk especially in light of the U.S. Supreme Court's recent Obergefell decision declaring same-sex marriage a 'fundamental right' and homosexuality an 'immutable' characteristic," Stemberger said in the statement.

"These Supreme Court holdings coupled with BSA's new membership policy changes, place the religious liberties of churches at even greater risk for legal attack and litigation."

BSA leaders began discussing opening the scouting ranks to homosexual youth late in 2011 and by 2013, the BSA formally adopted a policy allowing youth identifying as homosexual to participate in scouting. Many argued then that the policy change opened the door to adult homosexual leaders – and it did.

Public accommodation laws and non-discrimination laws are about to become major challenges as a result of the court's rulings. While the BSA may be well-meaning in its intent to create a local troop option for membership standards, for churches, this decision will be unsustainable over time, given the hostile nature of the courts and their 'evolution' on issues related to gay-rights and human sexuality.
- John Stemberger, Trail Life USA

During the Boy Scouts of America national meeting in 2015, BSA President Robert Gates called the group's ban on homosexual leaders in the changing culture "unsustainable," as it was being challenged by scout leaders in New York and Denver.

Instead of defending its policy banning homosexual adult leaders, which already relied on the protection offered by the U.S. Supreme Court when it ruled the BSA could exclude leaders it deemed morally unfit to lead, the BSA decided to change the policy. The organization, Gates said, could not "ignore the social, political and juridicial changes taking place in the country."

Now, religious charter organizations will presumably stand on their own, without the protection of the national organization, should they adopted membership policies excluding homosexuals. They also will be responsible for any legal burden should a dispute arise over the admission or dismissal of a gay scout or adult leader.

Monday's final vote on the matter at the national executive council "alters years of the youth protection policy within the [BSA] organization," Stemberger said. He also said churches are also at greater risk of litigation.

"Public accommodation laws and non-discrimination laws are about to become major challenges as a result of the court's rulings. While the BSA may be well-meaning in its intent to create a local troop option for membership standards, for churches, this decision will be unsustainable over time, given the hostile nature of the courts and their 'evolution' on issues related to gay-rights and human sexuality," Stemberger said.

"Some courts have already declared the BSA to be a public accommodation, and such rulings are likely to increase. This could have a direct effect upon the churches chartering troops in those jurisdictions if they were to face litigation over revoking the membership of the homosexual member who wears his uniform in the Gay Pride Parade, an adult who publicly marries his same-sex partner, or to the girl who believes she is actually a male."

"Pastors and priests must also realize that the new local troop option only applies to adult members and churches are still prohibited from denying any openly homosexual youth 'membership in the Boy Scouts of America on the basis of sexual orientation or preference."

"Finally, the new resolution to be passed by the BSA clearly affirms that homosexual acts can be 'moral, honorable, committed and respectful.' This opinion is wholly incompatible with historic Christian theology and ethics, and will make it even more challenging for a church to integrate a BSA unit as part of a church's ministry offerings," Stemberger also said.

The legal memorandum accompanying the Trail Life USA announcement was written by Richard Matthews, who served for 11 years as the legal counsel for the BSA. The position paper notes the risks churches are exposed to by aligning with the BSA after its formal declaration of the acceptance of gay adult leaders. The full legal memorandum can be viewed here.

In June, Trail Life USA announced a formal agreement to partner with American Heritage Girls, a new national organization founded as an alternative to the Girl Scouts, which has also accepted openly homosexual members and leaders.