NEW YORK, N.Y. - The Boy Scouts of America's proposed move away from its no-gays membership policy has outraged some longtime admirers, gratified many critics and raised intriguing questions about its future.
The anticipated policy change from the iconic American organization caps a wave of growing acceptance of homosexuality across the U.S., coming a year after the military agreed to allow openly gay soldiers to serve and as more states have legalized gay marriage.
The Boy Scouts took a tentative step in that direction Monday, saying they were considering replacing their long-standing ban on gays with a policy that would let troop sponsors make their own decisions. Time will tell whether the Scouts will split between troops with conflicting ideologies: those with gay-friendly policies, and those that keep the ban. The change is expected to be discussed next week at a meeting of the organization's national executive board.
A top official of the Southern Baptist Convention, whose conservative churches sponsor hundreds of Scout units that embrace the ban, was among those who are alarmed by the Scouts' proposal to allow sponsoring organizations to decide for themselves whether to admit gays as scouts and adult leaders.
"We understand that we are now a minority, that it is not popular to have biblical values, not popular to take stands that seem intolerant," said Frank Page, president of the SBC's executive committee. "This is going to lead to a disintegration of faith-based values."
Page had been scheduled to speak in July at the Scouts' National Jamboree, which draws together scouts, staff and volunteers from all over the country, and he is now apprehensive there could be conflict as troops with differing policies converge. Asked if he might decide not to speak, Page said he would pray about it.
Of the more than 110,000 scouting units across the U.S., nearly 70 per cent are chartered by religious organizations. Some were pleased by the proposed change, others were troubled.
The Scouts' ban on gays, which the U.S. Supreme Court upheld as constitutional in 2000, has provoked a multitude of protest campaigns over the years. Numerous Scout councils and Scout leaders have expressed disagreement with the policy, and some corporate donors last year said they were suspending gifts to the organization until the policy changed.
One of these companies, New Jersey-based drug-maker Merck & Co., said Tuesday it was pleased the Scouts were reconsidering their position, but declined further comment.
Another form of protest involved Eagle Scouts who returned their medals and badges to Boy Scout headquarters. Among them was Nate May, a 25-year-old musician, who depicted the Scouts' new proposal as "a step in the right direction."
Later this year, more than 40,000 Scouts from across the U.S. are expected to participate in the annual National Jamboree at a 10,600-acre (4,300-hectare) site being built in southern West Virginia.
If the new policy is in place by then, May said, there could be some teasing and hurt feelings as gays make their public debut at the Jamboree. But overall, he predicted a positive experience.
"It would potentially open up some really interesting dialogues," May said. "I think it will probably show troops that continue to have the ban that a troop can exist in harmony, even with gays in it."
In Philadelphia, scoutmaster Ann Perrone said she's spent the past 13 years fighting the ban by writing letters, speaking out and wearing gay-rights rainbow symbols.
"I've done everything I can think of to make a local difference," Perrone said. "I'm really thrilled."
Perrone, an African-American, said she benefited from white support for the civil rights movement and now, as a straight woman, sees a chance to help expand the rights of gays and lesbians.
She said the proposed change could prompt some churches to cut ties with Scouting, but suggested other congregations will step up to fill the gaps.
"This is something that will probably flare up and, if handled properly, will be allowed to die down," Perrone said.
The no-gays policy has fueled a protracted legal fight in Philadelphia. The Scouts' Cradle of Liberty Council has used a city-owned building rent-free for decades, and officials have been trying to evict them because the ban violates a local anti-discrimination law. A federal jury ruled in favour of the Scouts, but the city has appealed.
In North Carolina, news of the possible policy change was welcomed — cautiously — by Matt Comer who said he was forced out of his Boy Scout troop at the age of 14 after troop leaders confronted him over being gay.
"It was very intimidating," said Comer, now 26. "The scoutmaster said, 'If you choose to live that lifestyle, you choose not to be a Boy Scout.'"
"I lost a lot of good friends when I had to leave," Comer said. "I really did enjoy Scouts. I wanted to get my Eagle Scout and go on to be a Scout leader."
Now, he has mixed views about the proposed change, and anticipates there could be problems when troops with different stances mingle at jamborees and summer camps.
He also questioned whether adult leaders would have the necessary training and insight to deal well with gay scouts who come out if the ban is eased.
In Durham, North Carolina, the proposed change prompted some careful moral calculations by the Rev. Allen Jones, associate minister of Antioch Baptist Church and scoutmaster of the church-sponsored Troop 481.
"Personally, I believe homosexuality is a sin and you can go to hell for it," Jones said. "But the Gospel also speaks to the inclusion and acceptance of people with a cross to bear. If someone openly gay comes in and wants to participate, then that's between them and God. We're not going to discriminate."
Two of the biggest sponsors are the Mormons' Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, whose units serve roughly 420,000 scouts, and the Roman Catholic Church, which serves about 280,000 Scouts. Mormon and Catholic leaders, who have signalled support for the no-gays policy in the past, declined any official response to Monday's announcement of the possible change.
Associated Press writers Travis Loller in Nashville, Tennessee; Nomaan Merchant in Dallas, Kathy Matheson in Philadelphia, Mike Biesecker in Raleigh, North Carolina, Brady McCombs in Salt Lake City and John Raby in Charleston, West Virginia, contributed to this report.
Boy Scouts: http://www.scouting.org/
David Crary can be reached at http://twitter.com/CraryAP
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