Most denominations wary of Boy Scouts' decision on gay leaders

by Gregory Tomlin, |
Members of the Boy Scouts wait to march in the Veterans Day parade on 5th Avenue in New York November 11, 2014. The decision of the BSA's national leadership to allow openly homosexual adult leaders has many religious denominations questioning their ties with the historic group. Some say they will cease cooperation with the Boy Scouts. Others are "evaluating" their options. | REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

NEW YORK (Christian Examiner) – The decision of the Boy Scouts of America to open the ranks of adult Scout leaders to homosexuals is drawing sharp criticism from most religious denominations and signaling a future collapse in the organization's membership.

The BSA on Monday announced that its national leadership had ratified an earlier proposal to end its long-term ban on homosexual adult leaders – a ban BSA President Robert M. Gates in May called "unsustainable" due to the changes in culture and law in the United States.

Under the new policy, charter organizations are allowed to select their own leaders – even if they are gay. In what the organization no doubt viewed as a compromise, it also said religious charter organizations could still prohibit gay adult leaders, based on religious beliefs.

Most religious denominations, however, are in no way happy with the BSA's attempt to split the baby.


Leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's largest non-Catholic denomination with 15.5 million members, said the decision will cause Southern Baptist churches to withdraw from scouting and seek conservative, faith-based alternatives.

Ronnie Floyd, now serving his second term as president of the Convention, said Southern Baptists were saddened by the decision, and he believed churches standing "on the biblical ethic of sexuality will have to cease their sponsorship and involvement with the Boy Scouts of America."

Roger Oldham, the Convention's vice president for convention relations, also spoke on the issue. He told the Washington Post that each Southern Baptist church would have to decide on its own how to proceed in its relationship with the Boy Scouts. He said, however, that the denomination's leadership expressed "consummate sadness that this once vibrant organization continues to cave to social pressure, compromising its long-held, constitutionally protected tenets."

[W]e express strong concern about the practical implications of this resolution, especially for our young people in scouting, and whether the term 'sexual orientation' will be correctly understood and applied only in reference to sexual inclination and not to sexual conduct or behavior. We also express concern that the resolution articulates a position on adult sexual conduct that does not make clear that sexual behavior should be reserved to a husband and a wife in marriage

Oldham may have been referencing the organization's right to hold religious opinions under the First Amendment, but also the Supreme Court's ruling in 2000 that the BSA, as a private organization, could exclude homosexuals as Scouts and adult leaders if they did not adhere to the group's moral code – which then forbade homosexuality.

Through all Baptist denominations, including the SBC, some 94,000 Baptist youth are involved in scouting.


Based in Salt Lake City, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints or Mormon Church, also rejected the BSA's decision. Leaders of the denomination – not historically recognized as a branch of Christianity – said in a statement they had requested a delay in the vote because it was scheduled at a time in July when members of the church's governor councils were unable to meet.

Now, Mormon leaders said, "the century-long association with scouting will need to be examined."

"The Church has always welcomed all boys to its scouting units regardless of sexual orientation. However, the admission of openly gay leaders is inconsistent with the doctrines of the Church and what have traditionally been the values of the Boy Scouts of America."

According to figures provided by the BSA, the Mormon Church hosts the largest number of religiously-chartered Boy Scout troops with nearly 38,000 units and 437,000 Scouts.


Methodists on Tuesday also issued a statement about the BSA decision. In its denomination, scouting troops and activities are overseen by the General Commission on United Methodist Men. The commission's chair, Gilbert Hanke, said in a statement that it will still follow the Scout Oath and Scout Law, as well as the Declaration of Religious Principle, which mentions a Scout's reverence for and duty to God.

"The new policy will not change the process for selecting Scout leaders," Hanke said. "The decision of who will lead a unit (Cub Scout pack, Boy Scout troop, or Venturing crew) chartered by a United Methodist Church still resides with the local church. Local churches will continue to select and approve Scout leaders based on the church's Christian convictions and the evaluation of the character and skills of potential Scout leaders.

While the Methodist denomination continues to maintain its stance that homosexuality is sinful and an act of rebellion against God, recently efforts have been made in some Methodist conferences to gain acceptance for gay marriage. In those conferences, churches may well allow adult homosexual leaders in their Scout troops.

Hanke said, however, that "all Scout volunteers, regardless of their sexual orientation, are required to take and follow principles of the BSA Youth Protection Training. Any Scout leader found in violation of any of these principles is subject to immediate dismissal."

According to the BSA, Methodists make up the second largest number of Scouts, with 10,700 troops and 350,000 Scouts enrolled in the program.


Catholics, who have 8,100 troops and 259,000 Scouts, also questioned how the decision made by the BSA would affect its churches. A letter from the Catholic Committee on Scouting indicated the church was pleased the BSA recognized its need to adhere to historic Catholic teaching on the family and human sexuality, but still concerned with the cultural shift within the organization.

"[W]e express strong concern about the practical implications of this resolution, especially for our young people in scouting, and whether the term 'sexual orientation' will be correctly understood and applied only in reference to sexual inclination and not to sexual conduct or behavior. We also express concern that the resolution articulates a position on adult sexual conduct that does not make clear that sexual behavior should be reserved to a husband and a wife in marriage," the letter form the committee said.

The letter, however, did not say Catholics would leave the ranks of the BSA.


A conservative alternative to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which opened its ministerial ranks to openly gay ministers in 2013, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod issued a statement calling the decision of the BSA leaders disappointing. It said the BSA had shown it believes the principles of church selecting their own leaders and the BSA's policy on homosexual leaders can coexist.

The LCMS was not biting.

"While the BSA believes yesterday's decision is the best way forward and that these two principles can coexist, the LCMS is not willing to accept that conclusion," the denomination said in its statement.

"The LCMS has appreciated the open and forthright conversations with the BSA over the last two years, but while the legal pressures are certainly understandable, Lutherans as a whole cannot help but feel frustration and disappointment over the decision. It is a sad day when any organization, seeking self-preservation, must bend the knee to the civil authorities in a way that marginalizes and potentially excludes many who have participated in and been supportive of that organization for so many years," the statement said.


The United Church of Christ is among the few religious denomination's issuing an affirmation of the BSA's decision to open its adult leadership ranks to homosexuals. The group's executive for health and wholeness advocacy, Rev. Mike Schuenemeyer, said in a statement:

"The United Church of Christ members, pastors and leadership has called for a policy change since 1978 when the policy excluding youth and adult members on the basis of their sexual orientation was first officially adopted. We have done so because we are a church that believes that discrimination against anyone based on sexual orientation or gender identity is contrary to our understanding of the teachings of Christ. We have witnessed the harm that has been done as a result of discrimination, not only to gay, bisexual and transgender youth and adults, but also to their family, friends and allies. We also are witnesses to the blessings of inclusive ministries and the benefits of creating safe spaces where people may live, grow and serve in the fullness of their identities. To this end, we look forward to encouraging inclusive scouting programs throughout the United Church of Christ and to providing whatever assistance we can in the implementation of this policy change in the Boy Scouts of America."

While it is not yet clear just how many Scouts will leave the organization, the numbers could be staggering – as would be the consequences to the BSA. Already, those involved in scouting have expressed interests in the conservative alternative, Trail Life USA.

In a radio interview July 28, John Stemberger, who was formally involved with the Boy Scouts but left to form Trail Life USA after the BSA admitted gay Scouts in 2013, said the organization would likely lose many of its religiously affiliated members.

"This is a cherished institution that is literally going to gut its own membership. If the Catholic and the Baptist church leave in addition to the Mormon Church, then it's really going to be sad thing. This institution is now basically defying its own law and its own oath and 104 years of tradition," Stemberger said.