Separation of Church and Scouts

Dave Trull is a man on the brink. After 18 years as scoutmaster of the Boy Scout troop he grew up in, the troop in which he earned his Eagle badge, Trull sees a longstanding Scouting relationship on the verge of a very unhappy ending. It's tearing him up. And it's all because of the Boy Scouts' national ban on gay Scouts and leaders.

"I'm trying not to take it personally," he says. But "of course you do. I'm hoping that ... they'll measure their disapproval with some temperance and tolerance, and say, 'Some things we're gonna do because it's good for the youth.'"

Trull isn't gay. It's not the Boy Scouts of America that will soon decide whether to sever ties with him. It's the Unitarian Society of Fairhaven, Mass. -- the church that has sponsored Trull's Troop 55 for nearly 60 years.

Across the country, congregations and families are wrestling with the clash between their egalitarian religious values and their attachment to the Boy Scouts. The clash became clearer in June, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it's OK for the Scouts to discriminate. But how to resolve the moral conflict is not so clear to many who are wrestling with it. So while the Fairhaven congregation and another Boston-area Unitarian church will probably kick their Scouts out unless the local Scout leaders sign nondiscrimination pledges, other congregations have decided to let their troops stay, at least for now.

Church leaders praise Trull's hard work and integrity. "He's a wonderful person," says past president Debbie Mitchell, who has spent two years trying to salvage the relationship. "I'm very certain he would never discriminate against anyone. However, he doesn't really have the backing of the Boy Scouts."

So, after years of soul-searching and intense negotiations, Mitchell has decided she can no longer abide BSA's discrimination. She believes her 200-member congregation will agree when it comes to a vote in January -- although she's not sure.

"I think because there's tremendous history and tradition, people feel somehow there'll be a miracle resolution," Mitchell says.

"There are people in the church who say, 'Why are we pushing this? This isn't what the church is about,'" adds the interim minister, Judith Downing. "It is what the church is about. We're not living our faith."

Hate-mongers like "Dr." Laura cite Bible verses to prop up their claim that homosexuality is sinful. But there's another view on homosexuality -- another religious view, another Judeo-Christian view. In that view, we are all created in God's image. We all have equal intrinsic value, a gift from our creator. Sexual orientation -- which, according to most current scientific thinking, is largely influenced by genetics -- has no bearing on our worth as human beings or as religious people. Or as Boy Scouts or scoutmasters.

For Mitchell and Downing, the Scouts' ban on gays isn't simply a matter of civil rights -- accent on civil. It's also a matter of deeply held religious conviction. Theirs is a Welcoming Congregation -- one that has formally declared itself open to all, regardless of sexual orientation. The civil rights movement of the '50s and '60s was rooted in Judeo-Christian ideals of universal love, respect and freedom. For some people, so are gay rights.

Which Side Are You On?

The fledgling churches-vs.-Scouts struggle raises many of the same questions as have the struggles for gay rights within mainstream Protestant denominations themselves.

Does anti-gay discrimination outweigh the overall good of an institution that means so much to so many -- including gay people?

Which is more important: an autocratic but distant national body, or the good work of a local organization that tacitly ignores the offending national policy (as many Scout troops do)?

Does principle require breaking with a discriminatory organization, or is it equally principled to fight for change from within?

Then there's the tactical question: Which is more effective, pressure from within or pressure from outside?

People don't always answer these questions the way you might expect. At this point, even in the wake of the Supreme Court decision, the majority opinion -- even among some gay Scouts and ex-Scouts -- seems to be to stick with it and work for change.

Unitarians are in the forefront of this brewing battle, spurred by a years-old dispute between their national organization and the Texas-based Boy Scouts of America. But they're not alone.

The national Episcopal Church this summer passed a resolution urging congregations to "dialogue" with local Scout leaders on the issue. The United Church of Christ asked BSA years ago to drop its ban, and now some UCC churches are re-examining their Scouting ties. The United Methodist Church, which sponsors more Scouts than any other religious denomination, is split right down the middle: Its men's group backed BSA in the Supreme Court case. Its board of church and society supported the ex-assistant Scoutmaster who was kicked out for being gay and sued to be reinstated. So did Judaism's Reform and Reconstructionist movements and a national Quaker organization. Just last month in Minnesota, an Episcopal school dropped its Boy Scout troop sponsorship and a rabbi preached against the Scout policy in his Rosh Hashanah sermon. Scouting for All, a national organization dedicated to ending the Boy Scouts' discrimination, has the support of a number of religious organizations.

The number of UU-sponsored Boy Scout troops is tiny -- no more than 30 across the country, by most estimates. Even Episcopal and UCC congregations account for only about 1,400 Scout units and some 50,000 Scouts per denomination, according to 1998 statistics on an unofficial but comprehensive gays-and-Scouting Web site (www.sir.home.texas.net). And BSA has some heavy-hitting religious denominations on its side -- especially the Mormon and Catholic churches, which between them sponsored more than 760,000 Scouts in about 41,000 units in 1998. The Mormon church has said it will pull out of Scouting if BSA changes its policy.

Still, because Scouting is so intertwined with churches -- religious organizations sponsored 55 percent of Scouts and 61 percent of units in '98 -- the pressure of liberal and moderate denominations could start to add up.

Jef Reilly, a Dallas public relations professional hired as a BSA spokesman, sounds unconcerned about losing liberal church sponsors. "We'd love to have an amiable situation with all churches," he says. "But we respect the churches' right to associate or disassociate with whichever organizations they choose. We're seeing a lot of the traditional families supporting us."

While the national leaders spar, individual congregations and families across the country are trying to figure out what to do. Here are some of their stories.

"Time for a Change"

The scout troop is not just another building user; it is part and parcel of the church organization. The Supreme Court has ruled that the BSA may discriminate as it is a 'private religious organization.' This is just appearing more and more as an irreconciliable difference in the values of two private religious organizations. Isn't it time for a change?

It wasn't someone from the Unitarian Society of Fairhaven who wrote that message. But it might have been. The message was posted on UU-Scouting, an e-mail listserve devoted to discussion of the fit and discomfiture between Unitarian Universalism -- UUism, as its practitioners call it -- and the Boy Scouts. Much of the discussion revolves around the Scouts' ban on gays.

It's no surprise that UUs are the first mainstream religious group to come into open conflict with the Boy Scouts of America. A self-described "liberal religion" with "historical roots in the Jewish and Christian traditions," Unitarian Universalism has no creed, or statement of required belief, and each of its 1,050 congregations is self-governing. "We believe that ... religious authority lies not in a book or person or institution, but in ourselves," says the Unitarian Universalist Association, the Boston-based national organization. North America's 217,000 UUs include not only Christians but Jews and Buddhists, agnostics and atheists.

As in many other religions, Unitarian Universalist Scouts can earn an emblem, similar to a merit badge, awarded by the church. In 1998, BSA decided to stop recognizing the Religion in Life emblem. The reason: The manual that accompanies the emblem criticizes Scouting's anti-gay policy as well as the requirement for Scouts to pledge loyalty to God.

The author of the "time for a change" message belongs to a UU church outside Boston that has chartered a Cub Scout pack for 20 years. But probably not much longer, says this person, who asks that he and his church not be named because, for now, "we consider this a private matter that we're trying to resolve internally."

The Cub pack's charter, a standard BSA document, says that the pack and the chartering organization -- the church -- agree to follow each other's policies. "It's a dead conflict," says the church member in an interview. He sits on a church committee working on the issue.

His is a Welcoming Congregation with an active gay and lesbian presence, including an openly gay assistant minister whose duties would include interacting with the Cub Scout pack. Some congregation members moved there specifically because they heard about the church's welcoming stance. The congregation also includes "many lifelong Scouters," he says.

"This isn't just a theoretical issue. It hits people in the gut." A meeting early this month, at which the whole congregation considered the conflict, "was like sitting shiva," he says. "People were grieving."

"The tragedy here," he says, "is that there is no evidence of discrimination in the local organization. But we're not chartering with the local organization. We have to charter with the Boy Scouts of America."

The committee's recommendation -- on which the congregation will vote Nov. 5 -- is to return the unsigned charter to the Cub Scout leaders along with a copy of the church's Welcoming Congregation statement. If the Scout leaders are willing to sign that document, the church would continue to support the pack.

Even that position is a compromise. Four of the nine committee members, including him, "want nothing further to do with the Scouts," he says. And there's no sentiment for signing the charter: "It would be like signing a contract you plan to violate." The pack leaders are already making alternative plans, he says. And the church is in the "preliminary stages" of exploring a relationship with the Campfire Association, a coed youth organization that doesn't discriminate.

That doesn't mean the pain will end now, the committee member says. "We need to do some pastoral work with some of our members who feel hurt by" dissolving the Scouting relationship. "And with some of our gay and lesbian members who feel we shouldn't even be discussing this -- that we've moved beyond it."

The Iron Fist

The Scout Oath and Law is ostensibly the basis for BSA's ban on gay Scouts and leaders. Among other things, a Scout who pledges the oath and law promises to keep himself "morally straight" and "clean." BSA argued in the Supreme Court case Boy Scouts of America vs. Dale that those terms preclude homosexuality. BSA also contends that "avowed homosexuals" are not "good role models for the traditional family values that [are] part of our program," in the words of Reilly, the BSA spokesman.

Obviously, the definitions of "clean" and "morally straight" are open to interpretation. A handful of local Scout organizations around the country have publicly rejected BSA's interpretation. So far, they -- unlike the openly gay Scouts and leaders who've been kicked out -- have apparently suffered no consequences.

For example:

Troop 260 of San Jose, Calif., adopted an inclusiveness policy in 1991: "We do not agree that sexual orientation such as male or female homosexuality is immoral. Sexual preference is a private issue. We don't believe it to be relevant in the selection of adult leaders or in the awarding of the Eagle Scout rank." Although BSA initially threatened ("I'd call it a promise") to revoke the troop's charter, nothing has happened, says Troop Committee Chairman Michael Cahn.

The troop is chartered by a Lutheran church, which "very strongly supported our position," Cahn says. In fact, before the troop adopted the inclusiveness statement, "A lot of people at the church would have liked to make us go away because of the Scouts' homophobic position." That's not what prompted the statement, though -- the troop addressed the issue on its own.

BSA spokesman Reilly says he's not familiar with the situation.

In Berkeley, parent leaders of Cub Scout Pack 30 have also declared their disagreement with BSA policy. In a September parade, they marched with a banner reading "Berkeley Scout Parents Say NO to Homophobia." The pack is chartered by Epworth United Methodist Church, "a Reconciling Congregation with an inclusive, non-discriminatory ministry," says Cubmaster and church lay leader Karl Georgi.

The parade was "the most open statement we've made" opposing BSA policy, Georgi says. "We're basically escalating it along with the national organization." He's heard nothing in the way of disapproval or reprisal from BSA.

In Piedmont, Calif., the nation's smallest Boy Scout council this month became the first to announce its opposition to the national policy. The Oakland Tribune quoted a BSA spokesman as saying national leaders would have to study the Piedmont Council's position before deciding how to respond.

In general, Reilly tries to downplay the growing opposition from Boy Scout ranks. Asked about what happens to troops or councils that openly disagree, he says only: "That issue will be discussed between the local executives and the area directors for the councils. And since this isn't a widespread thing, there really isn't any precedent."

That's not to say dissent is consequence-free. A United Church of Christ congregation in Petaluma, Calif., applied for a charter for a new Boy Scout troop. The proposed scoutmaster: Scott Cozza, co-founder of Scouting for All. BSA denied the charter application.

On a quieter level, many Scout troops and councils basically ignore the national discrimination policy, and just don't talk about it. For some liberal churches, that's good enough -- at least for now.

Guerrilla Tactics

First, we should work hard to get them cut off from United Way, which is a huge funding source. ... Second, is to work from the international fora. ... Many countries with Scouting are much more liberal and accepting of homosexuality than the U.S.

We are planning a little guerrilla warfare. ... This year, for example, we will give money only to the local pack. None of my money -- or cash from our sons' fundraising -- will leave town. If the council asks why, I will he happy to tell them. I have told them that I will not be doing any more recruiting in the schools. And my oldest son -- who "graduates" to Boy Scouts next spring -- has already told me ... he doesn't want to go to a group that discriminates.

I believe that the best course of action is to work towards the revocation of the BSA's Congressional Charter which grants them in the United States, a monopoly on terms such as "Scouting."


As these posts from the UU-Scouting list illustrate, there's no consensus on how best to pressure BSA for change -- or even whether that's better than creating an alternative scouting organization that wouldn't discriminate. Many people seem to agree, though, on an interim solution: Let each troop or local council decide for itself whether it wants to discriminate. In fact, many people believe that's already the de facto policy, as long as nobody makes too much noise about bucking the national decree.

In the longer term, the Boy Scouts face a choice: Catch up with what's becoming mainstream public opinion and learn to live with gays in their midst, or drop out of the mainstream. The Girl Scouts of America don't officially discriminate against lesbians (or gay men, for that matter). Nor do the Boy Scouts of Canada, which recently chartered an explicitly gay troop.

The Supreme Court decision permitting BSA to discriminate has sparked a backlash among churches, United Way agencies, public schools and local governments. That, in turn, is prompting a counter-backlash among conservative and homophobic groups.

"Conservative individuals and groups are rallying around BSA in support of their discriminatory practices," wrote one UU-Scouting correspondent. "Does continued participation in scouting indicate to the community at large at least tacit support of BSA's intolerant policies?"

To which another responded: "Let the religious zealots form their own Youth Program of Hate and Intolerance and leave the BSA to the rest of us."

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