Churches fret as Scouts debate ending gay ban

While the Boy Scouts of America faces increased pressure to admit gay Scouts and gay Scout leaders, some of the churches that host Scout troops are also in the front lines of the battle and could lose their troops.

“This is a very controversial issue within the United Methodist Church,” said Gilbert Hanke, general secretary of the General Commission on United Methodist Men, the agency that oversees the Methodist Church’s Scouting programs. “The issue is a hot-button issue and there are strong feelings on both sides.”

Last week the Scouts signaled that they’re considering a new policy that would end the ban on gay members. While some liberal churches applauded the move, some conservative churches lobbied their membership to fight the change.

And some churches, including some Methodists, were split on their reaction. Hanke issued a statement last week attempting to ameliorate those angry about the proposal and suspicious that the Methodist Church’s leadership sought the new policy. Though he downplayed the difficulty that the new policy would cause, Hanke reassured churches that the BSA initiated the proposal, and he asked local churches not to abandon Scouting. “Who would not want to mentor young men in their Christian development?” he said.

Southern Baptist churches have been most outspoken in their criticism of the proposed change in Scouting policy, which would allow local host organizations to decide whether to allow homosexual members and leaders. That approach reverses a policy that the BSA affirmed as recently as July that banned gays from Scouts.

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Frank Page, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s executive committee, urged BSA leaders to scrap the proposal in a conference call last week, according to the Christian Index, a Southern Baptist publication. “I believe this will be a death blow to Scouting,” Page told the Scout leaders. “I think this is a self-inflicted wound.”

Roger S. “Sing” Oldham, vice president for convention communications, said he heard of at least one Baptist church in Georgia that will drop its Scout troop, and he quoted the pastor as saying, “They left us; we’re not leaving them.”

The policy change “is likely to alienate [Scouting’s] friends without placating their enemies,” Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., said during an interview Saturday.

Mohler added that “those pressing for change won’t be satisfied with the local option” and will insist on a national policy that refuses to discriminate against homosexuals. In fact, the Human Rights Campaign applauded the proposal but said it doesn’t go far enough. President Chad Griffin said the policy would create a “separate but equal” system, where some troops are inclusive, and he added “it’s not acceptable to abdicate nondiscrimination standards to local units.”

The majority of Scout troops — about 70 percent — are sponsored by churches, which range from the conservative Southern Baptist to the liberal United Church of Christ, which ordains gay clergy.

The top three churches sponsoring Scouting groups are the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (37,000 units), the Methodist Church (11,000 units) and the Roman Catholic Church (8,000 units). Baptist churches are further down the list (4,000 units), with Southern Baptists representing a part of that group.

“For the Boy Scouts, it will not be that dramatic an impact if the Southern Baptists pull out,” said David W. Key, the director of Baptist studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology.

But Chip Turner of Fort Worth, Texas, a former president of the Association for Baptists in Scouting and an active Scouting volunteer, said surveys at recent jamborees revealed that Scouts themselves were members of Baptist churches in higher proportions than the troop figures reveal.

“A lot of Baptists don’t understand they’re more heavily invested in Scouting than they realize,” Turner said.

A decision on the proposal is expected this week. The Boy Scouts of America declined to comment, pending the decision, but Oldham said the Scout leadership appears likely to approve the proposal. “The chairman has been lobbying for this change,” he said.

Baptist churches have long sponsored an alternative program to Scouting called the Royal Ambassadors, with Royal Ambassador troops in 3,000 churches. Oldham said those programs may well expand as Baptist youths leave Scouting.

Other forces make the change likely. The Scouts have been subject to petitions seeking an inclusive policy, and Sandy Springs-based UPS and drug manufacturer Merck & Co. both withdrew support from the Scouts as long as the ban on gay members was in force.

Mohler said the organizations seeking corporate support will find themselves inevitably swept along by “the cultural momentum toward the normalization of homosexuality.”

Said Mohler: “Scouts could have stood with their constituency or gone with the greater cultural momentum. And it appears they’ve gone with the latter, so they will lose the former.”

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