Boy Scouts president says ban on gay leaders 'unsustainable'

by Gregory Tomlin, |
Boy Scout Casey Chambers carries a rainbow flag during the San Francisco Gay Pride Festival in California June 29, 2014. | REUTERS/Noah Berger/FILE PHOTO

ATLANTA (Christian Examiner) – Boy Scouts of America President Robert Gates told BSA leaders in the group's annual meeting yesterday the organization's legal position with respect to its ban on gay Scout leaders has weakened and is "unsustainable."

"We cannot ignore growing internal challenges to our current membership policy, from some councils -- like the Greater New York Council, the Denver Area Council, and others -- in open defiance of the policy, to more and more councils taking a position 13 in their mission statements and public documents contrary to national policy. Nor can we ignore the social, political and juridicial changes taking place in our country -- changes taking place at a pace over this past year no one anticipated," Gates said.

"We must deal with the world as it is, not as we might wish it to be. The status quo in our movement's membership standards cannot be sustained," he continued.

Gates, who served as director of the Central Intelligence Agency and Secretary of Defense, assumed leadership of the organization two years ago and was tasked with turning the BSA's declining membership numbers around. They have, however, continued to fall as more churches disassociate themselves from the BSA over the group's vote to accept gay Scouts in 2013.

At the time, Scout leaders agreed to leave in place a ban on gay adult leaders in the organization. Critics, however, charged that the admission of gay Scouts would eventually lead to gay leaders. Now, that suspicion has been confirmed.

Gates said he expected more councils to challenge the ban on gay leaders and, while the organization has the authority to revoke a council's charter, as it did with a Seattle troop in 2014, Gates said he will not take that path.

"Dozens of states – from New York to Utah – are passing laws that protect employment rights on the basis of sexual orientation," Gates said.

"Thus, between internal challenges and potential legal conflicts, the BSA finds itself in an unsustainable position – a position that makes us vulnerable to the possibility the courts will simply order us at some point to change our membership policy. We must all understand that this probably will happen sooner rather than later."

The U.S. Supreme Court, however, ruled 5-4 in Boy Scouts of America v. Dale in 2000 that the BSA, a private, non-profit organization, had a First Amendment right to free association and, therefore, could dismiss a gay Scout leader without violating public accommodation laws. Under the ruling, the Scouts apparently had little to fear legally.

But Gates said he believes the organization's "legal defenses have weakened since the Dale case" and the BSA is increasingly at odds with state and federal laws. He also said the organizations ban on gay scout leaders is rejected by an increasing number of churches, "thus placing scouting between a boy and his church."

"Waiting for the courts is a gamble with huge stakes. Alternatively, we can move at some future date – but sooner rather than later – to seize control of our own future, set our own course and change our policy in order to allow charter partners – unit sponsoring organizations – to determine the standards for their Scout leaders. Such an approach would allow all churches, which sponsor some 70 percent of our scout units, to establish leadership standards consistent with their faith. We must, at all costs, preserve the religious freedom of our church partners to do this. Our oath calls upon us to do our duty to god and our country."

In an open letter to "the Key 3," which includes Gates, National Commissioner Tico Perez, and Chief Executive Wayne Brock, A.J. Smith – past president for the Association for Baptists in Scouting and a current member of the BSA's National Council Religious Relations Committee – told the leaders he was writing to express his concern about their trustworthiness.

Smith said the question of openly gay adults serving in leadership was settled at the 2012 national meeting with a resounding "no."

"On the basis of that promise and the conviction that 'A Scout is trustworthy,' I personally appeared at the 2012 Southern Baptist Convention as a messenger and as a member of the Association of Baptists for Scouting," Smith said.

"I assured my fellow Southern Baptists that the BSA had committed to stand firm on this key moral issue in the culture war that has been raging in our nation. The BSA secured in that year a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with American Baptist Men, and they staged late in the year a photo-op with then SBC President Fred Luter and BSA National Executive Wayne Brock, a fellow Southern Baptist."

But, as Smith noted, "almost as soon as that photograph appeared in major Baptist press outlets word began to leak out that the BSA, at its February 2013 meeting, was considering opening membership to both youth and adult homosexuals. Due to a number of events at the February 2013 meeting the move was stymied.

According to Smith, the National Committee then initiated a "survey" to determine whether or not rank and file Scouts and Scout leaders would be open to altering the membership policy. Smith said the survey was little more than a "push poll" designed to assess the membership's commitment to the BSA's moral standards and "move them along a continuum from resistance to acceptance."

After the poll, the National Committee voted in May 2013 to admit gay youth. Membership, according to the newly adopted policy, was not to extend beyond the eighteenth birthday of any Scout who was openly gay.

Since then, however, the organization has been roiled by the case of Pascal Tessier, an 18-year-old, openly gay man hired by the Greater New York Councils to serve as an adult Scout leader, in open defiance of the organization's ban. According to Gates, his leadership will now not be challenged.

"Now BSA President Bill Gates says that the membership policy barring homosexual leaders will not be enforced. Are the Key 3 men of their word? Or are they political opportunists for whom a pledge only has meaning as long as it serves a political end. Baptists are watching and want to know if the BSA really stands behind the Scout Law when it says that "A Scout is Trustworthy."

Smith said the open acceptance of homosexuals as adult leaders in the BSA will result of the exodus of Southern Baptists from the BSA's ranks. A group of concerned Christian Scout leaders has already created Trail Life U.S.A., a conservative alternative to the Boy Scouts. The organization attracted 14,000 members in the first year.

Joe Carter, editor for The Gospel Coalition, and a communications specialist for the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Bapitst Convention, wrote in a blog post about Gates' announcement that his "intention is both noble and laudable."

In his role to "preserve the Boy Scouts," Carter said he wonders about the lesson to young men -- and compares a lack of courage on the part of its leaders to that of religious organizations to "stand up to internally destructive dissidents for fear of losing the broader organization."

"Rather than standing for principle and staying true to their integrity, many Christian leaders will follow Gates example and cave in to the pressure to condone ungodly behaviors in order to preserve the 'mission,'" Carter wrote. "They will abandon their integrity in a misguided attempt to preserve an organization that is rotting from within."


Trail Life USA reacts to Boy Scout president on gay leaders; reaffirms is own commitment to 'timeless Christian values'