Sad Day for BSA: Catholic Bishop, Parents React to 'New, Inclusive' Era of Scouting
The episcopal liaison for the National Catholic Committee on Scouting told the Register that Catholic participation could continue, if the Boy Scouts of America honor a pledge to let religious groups make their own decisions on the matter.
IRVING, Texas — Churches and other religious organizations will determine whether or not to accept homosexual adults as leaders in chartered troops, packs and other Boy Scout units, now that the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) has removed its ban on homosexual adults from serving in leadership and volunteer positions throughout the organization.
Bishop Robert Guglielmone of Charleston, S.C., the episcopal liaison for the National Catholic Committee on Scouting (NCCS), told the Register the NCCS was “cautiously optimistic” that Catholic organizations could still be involved with the BSA, so long as the policy on paper became the policy in practice.
“We have to look at how all this plays out,” the bishop said. “The NCCS has indicated we can use this program and keep it within the parameters of Catholic teaching based on what is said and what is promised.”
On July 27, the national executive board of the Boy Scouts of America ratified a resolution that stated adults will no longer be denied the opportunity to serve as employees or non-unit volunteers of the Boy Scouts of America “on the basis of sexual orientation.” The resolution had already been passed unanimously by the BSA’s national executive committee and goes into effect immediately.
“This change allows scouting’s members and parents to select local units, chartered to organizations with similar beliefs, that best meet the needs of their families,” BSA said in a statement provided to the Register.
The resolution leaves it up to religious-chartered organizations to choose adult leaders that are consistent with their own beliefs. However, secular organizations would have to abide by their organizations’ own rules and the BSA’s amended national policy.
Bishop Guglielmone said the NCCS believes that chartering Catholic organizations, whether it is a parish, the Knights of Columbus, the Knights of St. Peter Claver or similar Catholic organizations, are covered by the policy.
“Our concern is going to be whether this is going to be upheld as time goes on,” he said, “both by BSA and what the courts think about all this.”
Catholic Scoutmaster: ‘A Sad Day’
However, other Catholics involved with the Boy Scouts of America expressed disappointment and concern that the new decision would lead to more parents pulling their children out of scouting.
Jim, a Catholic scoutmaster (last name and troop identification withheld by request), said his Virginia-based troop lost members after the youth-policy change in 2013, and he was concerned that more parents would choose to exit scouting.
“It’s a sad day for BSA, but I would encourage Catholics and conscientious scouters nationwide to band together and take back their organization, rather than abandoning ship,” he said.
But Zach Wahls, an Eagle Scout raised by same-sex parents and the founder of the Scouting for Equality movement, said his group’s members felt vindicated by the BSA policy change.
“It’s very clear that the resolution passed by the national organization will lead to less discrimination, and we are very happy about that,” Wahls said.
He added that while his organization would prefer to see a uniform non-discrimination policy throughout BSA, they recognized it was not possible at this time. He said Scouting for Equality’s position is that BSA needs to be able to carry out its program, and this requires BSA to be able to work with “different constituencies.”
“We’re excited about what is currently on the table,” he said. “We look forward to working with the Boy Scouts to charter new, inclusive units.”
The BSA national executive board voted 79% in favor of the change. The Register learned that only 57 members of the 80-member board cast votes and that the ballot may have lacked full participation from Mormon leaders opposed to the change.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints said in a statement that it requested the national board to delay the vote, since it was scheduled “at a time in July when members of the church’s governing councils are out of their offices and do not meet.”
The church, which had supported the youth-policy change, added that it was “deeply troubled” by the board’s decision with regard to adult leaders and would now be reviewing its relationship with scouting.
Representing Catholic views, the NCCS expressed its own “strong concern” that the resolution’s understanding of sexual orientation “will be correctly understood and applied only in reference to sexual inclination and not to sexual conduct or behavior.”
“We also express concern that the resolution articulates a position on adult sexual conduct that does not make clear that sexual behavior should be reserved to a husband and a wife in marriage.”
Bishop Guglielmone said current BSA policies are “very clear” that neither homosexual nor heterosexual activity has a place in scouting. BSA’s Boy Scout and Cub Scout programs are single-sex, but the organization also has co-ed programs for older teenagers, such as the Venturing program or the Sea Scouts.
Still, he said that BSA is developing new sets of policies and guidelines to cover camping situations, scout camp, camporees and jamborees, etc.
“We have to see what is going to be part of the new scouting policies,” he said.
Legal Landscape ‘Unwinnable’
In a legal memo provided to the national executive committee, BSA attorneys argued that the legal landscape that emerged after the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision redefining marriage to include same-sex couples, and a variety of other factors, has made it “more challenging for the BSA to declare that homosexual conduct is not morally straight and not clean” and a protracted legal battle “unwinnable.”
“In the 15 years since [Boy Scouts of America v.] Dale, the government’s interest in protecting against discrimination based on sexual orientation has increased dramatically and is expected to continue to increase,” it said. Boy Scouts of America v. Dale was a 2000 Supreme Court case that upheld the BSA’s right to establish its own membership behavioral standards.
The memo stated that BSA faced “staggering” costs fighting multiple legal battles, would face councils and members filing amicus briefs against them and risked inviting courts to issue broad decisions that would strike down its “duty to God” requirement.
It also cited the solicitor general’s statement during the oral arguments in the Obergefell case that the nonprofit status of organizations that discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation was “going to be an issue.”
BSA doubted that a lawsuit would go as far as challenging a scouting unit setting its rules in accordance with its religious convictions, due to existing protections religious organizations have under public-accommodation statutes and the First Amendment. But in the worst-case scenario, it stated, “A court that is not stopped by the First Amendment would not be stopped by BSA policy.”
“Let there be no doubt: The BSA will steadfastly defend the right of religious-chartered organizations to select leaders whose beliefs are consistent with those of the religious organization.”
After the BSA’s 2013 youth-membership change, the Boy Scout membership dropped by 7.4%.
For Catholic parents and scout leaders like Jim, there are concerns that this attrition will continue. He said many parents are concerned that the policy sends a mixed message on BSA’s moral standards.
“I’m very opposed to gay leaders in the troop, and I don’t think it’s the example BSA should be setting for young men,” he said. “The purpose of BSA is to create mature men with values and character traits that we cherish.”
“What’s going to happen when a ‘husband and husband’ are the leaders on campout?” he added. “What are the mechanisms that BSA is going to put in place to do something about it?”
He said the other concern expressed by parents was that it would make it more difficult to identify those adults with same-sex attraction who might abuse their leadership authority in order to enter into sexual relationships with older teens under 18 years old, and to prevent such abuse.
“We went through this brouhaha with abusive scoutmasters,” he said, adding that cases were still pending.
Wahls, however, rejected the assertion and pointed out that BSA has never claimed that its restriction on homosexual adults was ever related to its youth-protection policy.
Bishop Guglielmone pointed out that the BSA’s youth-protection policies are even stronger than the protections the Catholic Church instituted in response to its own sex-abuse crisis.
An Obligation to Be Vigilant
Bishop Guglielmone noted that the BSA’s policy also affirms that matters of human sexuality belong to the family and the Church and is not an area in which scouting should be involved.
“That is the question: whether the Boy Scouts of America are going to uphold that statement and make sure that the 'Family Life' merit badge is not adjusted to areas that would be inconsistent with Catholic teaching.”
The bishop added that Catholics have a “really serious obligation” to look carefully at what is happening in BSA’s programs and to maintain their presence for as long as they can, since Catholic youth are still a part of the program.
“If the policy is followed to the degree they indicate it would be, and if things work out in terms of what they are projecting, it is something we can deal with; we can still charter Catholic units, and those units can be consistent with what we teach as Catholics.”
Peter Jesserer Smith is the Register’s Washington correspondent.