Boy scouts and religion

September 24, 2000|By PATRICK BOYLE

WASHINGTON - In sticking to its ban on gay leaders TV in the face of corporate and government arm-twisting, the Boy Scouts of America is telling the world who are its real friends. Forced to choose between the Mormon Church and Chase Manhattan Bank, between the United Way and the United Methodists, the BSA sides with the churches.

That's because the BSA's relationship with religious groups is unique among America's major youth programs and helps explain why both sides are ignoring a poteitial solution to this quagmire, is which the ultimate victims may be 3.5 million kids.

The solution involves compromise, a dirty word in this holy war between religious rights and America's creed of tolerance. The wat has intensified since June, when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the BSA's right to ban gays.

Acting at the urging of civil liberty and gay rights groups, the citizens of San Francisco, Chicago and San Jose have barred the Scouts from using municipal facilities, such as schools and parks. Several local United Ways have dropped their funding, while corporations as Chase Manhattan and Merrill Lynch have done the same or are threatening to.

Is the BSA worried? Consider thepressure from the other side: The Mormon Church has said that if the BSA allows gays, it will pull up its tent stakes. The Mormons sponsor nearly three times as many Scout units (31,000) as anyone, accounting for more Scouts (12,000) than any sponsor except the United Methodist Church (422,000).

Religious organizations sponsor 65 percent of all Scout units, according to the BSa. Of the top eight sponsors, six religious groups.

That's no coincidence Scouting founder Lord Robert Baden-Powell built his movement on religious principles in order to combat moral decay among British boys. When the BSA formed in 1910, it crafted a Scout Oath that says a Scout is "morally straight" and added a Scout Law that says a Scout is 'reverent' toward God" and 'faithful to his religious duties."

American religious groups, struggling to develop youth programs, found Scouting to be a perfect lit: the boys loved the outdoor adventures, and the BSA encouraged churches to weave in religious instruction.

The Mormon Church, in a brief to the Supreme Court supporting the ban on gays, explained the tight relationship: "Because of Scouting's devotion to the spiritual element of character education and its willingness to submerge itself in the religious traditions of its sponsors, America's churches and synagogues enthusiastically embraced Scouting."

That enthusiasm helped Scouting grow into an American icon, now 3.5 million kids strong. No wonder officials from religious denominations -.- including Mormon, Catholic, Methodist, Lutheran and Presbyterian - sit on the BSA executive board and its advisory council. The BSA even awards merit badges for religious education, such as the "God and Country' badge for the Baptists.

But these churches' views on homosexuality have evolved in recent years. Unitarians, the United Church of Christ and Reform Judaism have urged the BSA to accept gays. Others, such as the Episcopal Church of the USA, are grappling with the issue themselves. The commission that oversees Scouting in the United Methodist Church supports the gay ban, while another commission opposes it.

The Mormon Church and the Catholic Church (fourth in terms of Sponsorship) are the most ardent supporters of the ban. And many Scout parents, even those who profess to be non-judgmental about sexual preferences, are uncomfortable about their children being led by gay adults. These Sponsors and parents mean more to the BSA than do San Francisco or a few United Ways.

This is why Scouting stands alone in this mess. Other American youth groups - such as the Girl Scouts, the YMCA and Boys & Girls Clubs of America are not so entwined with religious organization's, and their- units and clubs are not so dependent on specific sponsors. These organizations take no position Ofl homosexuality; they have no problems when gays serve as Volunteers or employees.

Scout organizations in other countries generally follow the same philosophy - including England, where Scouting was born, and Canada, which last year sanc-tioned a gay troop.

Now look at this: The Catholic and Mormon Churches still sponsor Boy Scout troops in Canada. The Catholic Church sponsors Girl Scout troops in the United States. These churches have not dropped out of Scouting, even though some Scout units accept gays. The churches' fear is being forced to accept gay leaders in their own troops and packs, as was the case with the New Jersey law that brought the Scout ban to the Supreme Court.

There's the BSA's solution: leave this question up to the groups that sponsor packs and troops. The Mormons could decide that gay leaders are not appropriate for their troops, while a PTA-sponsored troop in San Francisco could let them in.

Evan Wolfson, the attorney for the banned leader in the Supreme Court case, rejects this idea, saying the BSA is a public accommodation that should always be open to everyone. But the nation's highest court disagrees. Meanwhile, the BSA's image and some of its Scout units are taking severe hits from corporate and government back-lash against its policy.

This is an adult fight that's hurting kids. Perhaps the grownups can now demonstrate how to untie a knot.

Patrick Boyle is editor of Youth Today, a newspaper for youth workers, and author of "Scout's Honor: Sexual Abuse in America's Most Trusted Institution" (Prima Publishing, 1994).

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