The majority of Baptist churches locally would drop out of the Boy Scouts if the organization lifts its longtime ban on gay leaders and scouts, a local Baptist church leader predicted last week.
“We are stepping away from God’s word, and that’s the wrong direction,” said Steve Siglich, an Eagle Scout and director of missions for the Greater Dayton Association of Baptists.
The comment, which mirrors the position of the national Southern Baptist Convention, represents the depth of feeling some have toward last week’s proposal by the Boy Scouts of America to lift the ban. But it also shows what a watershed moment this is for one of the nation’s most visible symbols of traditional values.
Allowing gays in the scouts would appear to close some doors just as it opens others.
Sonja Harry of Washington Twp. said that she and her partner, Alison Perkins, would consider allowing their young sons to join the Boy Scouts if the policy is changed. “We would not allow our kids to be part of a group where we are not welcome to be present in a leadership role,” Harry said. “I don’t want them to be in a place where they are told that their family is not OK.”
The change would not require all troops to accept gays, but would leave the decision to troop sponsors such as churches, schools and civic groups. Gay rights advocates such as the Human Rights Campaign have declared it doesn’t go far enough, while socially conservative organizations such as the Family Research Council have accused the Boy Scouts of abandoning long-held moral principles.
Both sides agree that the move has profound symbolism since the BSA is such an American icon. And few can predict how the issue will affect the BSA’s membership ranks or financial well-being.
The Boy Scouts is one of the nation’s largest youth organizations, with 2.65 million scouts and 1.1 million adult leaders and volunteers, according to the organization’s website.
“Honestly, I don’t know what the impact will be, but I hope it will be minimal,” said Doug Nelson, scout executive and CEO of the Miami Valley Council of the BSA. “Society is divided on this issue just as churches are divided.”
The proposal appears to be an abrupt departure from the gay ban which the Boy Scouts strongly reaffirmed only last July. Many attribute the shift to pressure from corporate sponsors as well as a growing public relations quandary. An upcoming National Geographic show, “Are You Tougher Than a Boy Scout?” met with protest from gay-rights groups.
Yet making the change would carry a significant risks as well. In an interview Wednesday on the Ohio Christian Alliance’s radio station, Dr. Richard Land of the national Southern Baptist Convention predicted that 90 percent of Baptist churches would withdraw from the Boy Scouts if the policy is overturned.
Land said the Southern Baptist Convention would be likely to revive the Royal Ambassadors, the church’s now-dormant youth outdoors organization with a strong spiritual component.
“They have already told to gear up because a lot of Baptists will be wanting to go back to the Royal Ambassadors program,” Land said in the radio interview.
The Baptist Church is the sixth-largest faith-based organization involved with scouting, with 4,099 troop and packs and 109,298 Scouts.
The Miami Valley Council has seen continuous membership growth in recent years, including a 3-percent increase last year that boosted its membership to 10,000 Scouts and 2,500 leaders in Darke, Preble, Shelby, Miami and Montgomery counties. The Council boasted slight surpluses during the past two years after operating $554,681 in the red in 2009.
Nelson said the national board could vote on the issue on Wednesday or postpone it until the BSA’s annual meeting in May. “I don’t know how it will affect funding,” Nelson said. “As I understand it, the decision would be pushed down to local churches and civic groups.”
Critics of the policy change warn that many church troops might drop out of the Boy Scouts, while supporters said that many families would consider joining for the first time. “It is a watershed moment showing once again that gays are being seen in an accepting light, and more people are believing that gay kids and their families should have the same rights to enjoy scouting and social interaction with their peers,” said Ian James, co-founder of FreedomOhio, a nonprofit group fighting to overturn Ohio’s gay marriage ban.
Mike Castle, senior pastor at Harmony Creek Church in Kettering, said his church wouldn’t consider sponsoring a troop unless the ban is lifted. The openly gay pastor and father of two boys said the current policy is contrary to his church’s values of acceptance and tolerance. “This change would be a breath of fresh air,” he said. “Anyone who uses our building will treat all people with human dignity and respect and they will be inclusive and welcoming.”
The Ohio Christian Alliance issued an “urgent action alert” Wednesday, sending emails to 40,000 supporters urging them to call the national BSA offices to register their protest. “The homosexual movement is not stupid, and they have gone after the most iconic symbols of America,” Land said in the radio interview. “What’s more iconic than the military? So they have gone after the military. What’s more iconic than the Boy Scouts? They have gone after these symbols because they want society to normalize and affirm their behavior their behavior and abnormalize and ostracize those of us who hold a biblical convictions about what the bible has to day about homosexual behavior.”
The Archdiocese of Cincinnati has received no official communication from the BSA, according to spokesman Dan Andriacco: “When and if the Boy Scouts of America adopt a new policy, the Archdiocese will study it to see if it requires any action on our part.”
Some analysts believe that remaining stagnant may pose the greatest danger of all. “There is some risk involved, but there may be greater risk in refusing to budge against the tide of changing cultural attitudes,” observed Sheila Hassell Hughes, chair of the English department at the University of Dayton, who also teaches gender studies. “If the Boy Scouts continued to be identified with an exclusionary attitude that seems out of date, that could threaten to make the Boy Scouts irrelevant. Backlash is inevitable, but the polls have shown us that it’s not just New York and LA that are softening their resistance to gay and lesbian couples and families, but the rest of the country as well.”
Opponents believe the BSA should hold true to its long-held principles in the face of social pressure and social change. “It would be tragic if the policy were to change and effectively ruin an iconic American institution,” said Chris Long, president of the Ohio Christian Alliance.
Long added, “As Christians we are accepting of all people, but that doesn’t mean we agree with their position. The ‘morally straight’ part of the scout oath, that’s very plain.”
Stiglich said he was working on a “God and country” award when he was first truly drawn to Christianity. “It was because of scouting that I came to know Jesus Christ as my Lord and savior,” he said. “That was the beginning of my walk with the Lord.”
Stiglich said the BSA should adhere to its current policies and not give in to social pressure. “The word of God is not going to change,” he said. “We are all sinners and we all fall short. We can treat each other with love, and be considerate of each other, yet still hear the message of God.”
Sonya Harry, in contrast, is excited about the prospect that her sons, now 6 and 3, could some day become Boy Scouts and enjoy hiking and camping. “It would make a strong statement that society is becoming more open and accepting of gay and lesbian families,” she said. “It’s amazing that this has happened after the Boy Scouts made such a harsh statement and were seemingly entrenched only a few months ago.”
James speculated that the BSA is concerned that the possible loss of corporate donors if it maintains its current policy. He said Scout leaders also have an eye on history: “It’s a legacy issue. Do you want to be on side of equality or not? Your kids and grandkids are going to ask you, ‘Were you the LBJ or were you the George Wallace? That’s a motivating factor. It’s very clear it’s inevitable that acceptance is coming, so how long do you want to stand there against the flow of justice?”
Alan Cooperman, associate director of research for The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, said that attitudes about gay rights are changing at a remarkably fast rate for a social issue. He cited Pew Forum research showing that in 2001, Americans opposed same-sex marriage by a 57- to 35-percent margin, while today, 48 percent are in favor and 43 percent opposed.
Other surveys have shown a similar trend. In the latest Gallup poll on gay marriage, taken last November, 53 percent said marriages between same-sex couples should be valid against 46 percent who said they shouldn’t be valid.
“On a social issue this is a lot of change in a short time,” Cooperman observed. “On other issues, such as attitudes toward gun control, there is some bouncing around, depending on events. What is remarkable here is that it is a consistent change in the same direction over time.”
Hassell Hughes, the UD English Department chairman, said the popular media — from television to music to the Internet, from Lady Gaga to Ellen — has changed public opinion at an almost unimaginable pace, especially among young people.
The shift in the Boy Scouts takes the trend to another level.
“It’s very significant when it’s happening with a group that is conservative in the sense of conserving and preserving tradition,” she said.
Christopher Adam Johnson of Dayton said the BSA should lift the ban altogether: “By not completely abolishing it is saying they will continue to tolerate and uphold discrimination within the organization. I couldn’t imagine being a young boy and knowing I was gay and not being accepted by my own group of scouts.”
But Richard Thorpe of Lewisburg sees shades of gray, contending the BSA should maintain the ban on gay leaders while admitting scouts regardless of their sexual orientation.
“I contend that a kid eighteen years or younger has insufficient life experience to even consider declaring themselves gay versus straight,” he said.
Purpose: “To provide an educational program for boys and young adults to build character, to train in the responsibilities of participating citizenship, and to develop personal fitness.”
Total number of Scouts: 2,650,794
Adult leaders and volunteers: 1,039,825
Total number of units: 108,971 including Cub Scout packs, Boy Scout troops, Varsity Scout teams and venturing crews
Source: Boy Scouts of America website; membership data as of Dec. 31, 2012