Speaking at the Boy Scouts of America's National Meeting today, the organisation's President, Robert M. Gates, stated that he will not revoke the charters of local councils which permit gay adult leaders. The move stops short of calling the nationwide acceptance of gay adults to a vote, but opens the door for more local councils and troops to act as they see fit.
"We must deal with the world as it is," Gates told assembled Scout leaders. "Not as we might wish it to be."
To provide a quick history and context roundup, homosexuality in scouting has tracked broader societal trends historically. There's always been gay scouts and gay leaders or parents, but the issue of "permitting" them came to a head over the last decade. In 2013, the organisation voted to allow openly gay scouts, but stopped short of permitting gay adult leaders. With many Eagle Scouts (the organisation's highest level of achievement) choosing to continue their service with the organisation after their 18th birthdays, this move effectively kicked gay Eagle Scouts into the cold. It also closed the door to participation by gay parents or just gay guys and gals who want to help kids.
It also institutionalized discrimination and bigotry; not things we should be teaching our children. And that's a huge problem because otherwise, Scouting is one of the best leadership programs for kids in the world.
"I am not asking the National Board for any action at this meeting," Gates continued.
The issue has continued to boil within the BSA, leading to the conclusion that this year's annual meeting would have to address the matter in some way. Gates has just done that and, by issuing a proclamation that local councils will not be challenged in their own decisions on the matter by the national organisation, he's essentially permitted the inclusion of gay adult leaders as those local councils see fit, without a potentially fracturing debate and vote. One that, if it went the wrong way, would have exposed Scouting to years of controversy and legal action.
"In open defiance," to quote Gates' speech, Scout Councils in Greater New York and Denver have this year accepted gay adult leaders. "While technically we have the authority to revoke their charters, such an action would deny the lifelong benefits of Scouting to hundreds of thousands of boys and young men today and vastly more in the future. I will not take that path."
And there you go, each of the 300 or so local Scout Councils just got permission from the organisation's President to do as they see fit. Scouting has always been a de-centralised organisation where local parents, troops and leaders determine the quality of the experience for the kids involved. Shifting the choice to them is a logical continuation of that structure.
"This is another step forward for the Boy Scouts of America," says Scouts for Equality's Zach Walhs. "I'm proud to see Dr. Gates chartering a course towards full equality in the BSA. While our work won't be done until we see a full end to their ban on gay adults once and for all, today's decision moves the Boy Scouts in that direction."
That doesn't mean the national organisation won't need to change too though. Gates hopes to avoid a long, drawn-out legal battle, or one that could further fracture Scouting's members.
"If we wait for the courts to act, we could end up with a broad ruling that could forbid any kind of membership standard," Gates warns. "Including our foundational belief in our duty to god and our focus on serving the specific needs of boys. "Waiting for the courts is a gamble with huge stakes."
Gates proposes an alternative: "Alternatively, we an move at some future date — but sooner rather than later — to seize control of our own future, set our own course and change our policy in order to allow charter partners — unit sponsoring organisations — to determine the standards for their Scout leaders. Such an approach would allow all churches, which sponsor some 70% of our Scout units, to establish leadership standards consistent with their faith. We must, at all costs, preserve the religious freedom of our church partners to do this."
Scout troops are organised and funded by community organisations like schools and churches. Allowing each to determine its own policy effectively returns Scouting to its status quo, while ending discrimination against gay adults at the national level. Remember: gay kids are now permitted across the BSA.
Gates achieves this with the proclamation that the BSA won't revoke charters of councils which choose to allow gay adults, but still seeks to make that policy official.
"Our oath calls upon us to do our duty to god and our country," concludes Gates. "The country is changing."