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Boy Scouts ready to scrap ban on gays

  • Article by: KIRK JOHNSON
  • New York Times
  • January 29, 2013 - 1:09 PM

The Boy Scouts of America, with its traditions of youth in uniform and character-building virtues, has always looked back to an older, more structured image of America, when gay and lesbian people were invisible and silent in U.S. society. It was a view reaffirmed in Scout policy as recently as seven months ago. Openly gay Scouts and Scout leaders need not apply.

The announcement on Monday by Scout officials that the ban on gays was in line for elimination was thus a thunderclap on two fronts, Scouts and people close to the organization said. First, it completely removed from discussion the idea, voiced in July by senior national Scout leaders, that the ban was in the best interests of Scouts themselves.

Perhaps even more momentous was the acknowledgment that scouting itself had moved on, with a diversity of thought and social form -- like the multicultural and sexually diverse buzz of modern America itself -- that no longer could be confined or defined by a dictated policy from headquarters. Local chapters would now decide whether to admit gay Scouts.

"The Boy Scouts would not, under any circumstances, dictate a position to units, members or parents," a spokesman for the Boy Scouts of America, Deron Smith, said in a statement.

"This would mean there would no longer be any national policy regarding sexual orientation, and the chartered organizations that oversee and deliver scouting would accept membership and select leaders consistent with each organization's mission, principles or religious beliefs."

In July, Minnesota's biggest Boy Scout group said gays and lesbians are welcome in its troops, despite the national position. Kent York, spokesman for the Northern Star Council, which has 75,000 Scouts in Minnesota and western Wisconsin, said on Monday: "We did know this topic was going be on the national board's agenda for next week. We've been really kind of waiting to see what the outcome of that was."

Nationally, Scout officials gave no time line for a formal decision or implementation of the policy, but a spokeswoman said in an e-mail that discussion was anticipated at next week's national executive board meeting. Board meetings are private and closed to the public and the news media.

In 2000, the Supreme Court affirmed the Boy Scouts' right to refuse gay members.

Groups that had pushed for the change said that even if senior Scout leaders have second thoughts about the policy, it would probably be too late.

"The Boy Scouts of America have heard from Scouts, corporations and millions of Americans that discriminating against gay Scouts and Scout leaders is wrong," said Herndon Graddick, the president of GLAAD, an advocacy group for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. "Scouting is a valuable institution and this change will only strengthen its core principles of fairness and respect."

Smith, the Scout spokesman, said that under the proposed policy, "the BSA would not require any chartered organization to act in ways inconsistent with that organization's mission, principles or religious beliefs."

He said that members and parents would be able to choose a local unit that best meets the needs of their families.

Critics and supporters alike said that abandoning national policy for local control could have unintended consequences.

Tony Perkins, the president of Family Research Council, a conservative group, said in a statement: "If the board capitulates to the bullying of homosexual activists, the Boy Scouts' legacy of producing great leaders will become yet another casualty of moral compromise. The Boy Scouts should stand firm."

Zach Wahls, whose group has been working for more inclusive rules under the motto, "A Scout is equal," said he applauded the change.

"It's a step in the right direction, and good to see that BSA is softening its position," he said. "But under the policy change, it will still be possible for some units to discriminate."

Staff writer Rose French contributed to this report.

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