Boy Scouts of America leaders voted by a substantial margin on May 23, to lift the organization's longstanding ban on openly gay youth in the Scouting movement.
After months of debate and surveys of leaders, Scouting officials recommended allowing openly gay Scouts but retaining the prohibition on gay adult leaders. In a secret ballot, more than 1,400 volunteer local leaders in the group's National Council accepted the proposal by a vote of 61 percent.
The approved resolution says: "No youth may be denied membership in the Boy Scouts of America on the basis of sexual orientation or preference alone."
The change could affect ministries at 6,700 United Methodist churches in the United States. The discussion also has helped re-energize a longtime debate about human sexuality within The United Methodist Church.
Larry Coppock, United Methodist Men's national director of Scouting ministries, was among those at the Boy Scouts' gathering in the Dallas-Fort Worth suburb of Grapevine. The Commission on United Methodist Men oversees scouting ministries and civic youth-serving agencies across the denomination.
"The United Methodist Church, and specifically the General Commission on United Methodist Men, did not have a vote in this matter, nor did other faith groups that serve as chartering organizations of the Boy Scouts of America. The change in membership standards was initiated by BSA," United Methodist Men said in a statement.
"It is our hope and prayer that future membership-standard considerations will begin with BSA's Religious Relationship Task Force, a committee composed of representatives from various faith groups that represent 70 percent of BSA's units and 62 percent of its membership."
Gil Hanke, the top executive of the Commission on United Methodist Men, said ahead of the vote, that his agency joined in others in praying for those who would make the decision.
Varying religious perspectives
Various religious groups had weighed in on the proposal in advance of the Boy Scouts' annual National Council meeting.
United Methodist congregations and individuals have advocated both for eliminating the ban and keeping it.
Kessler Park United Methodist Church in Dallas' Oak Cliff community, for example, posted a statement on its Facebook page earlier this week urging Boy Scouts of America leadership to adopt the resolution.
The church and homosexuality
Since 1972, the Book of Discipline has identified the practice of homosexuality as "incompatible with Christian teaching."
It also affirms that all people are "individuals of sacred worth, created in the image of God," and proclaims a commitment to be in ministry for and with all people.
Church law prohibits "self-avowed practicing" gays and lesbians from serving as clergy, but the book is silent about whether they can serve as lay leaders in other church roles.
The Book of Discipline additionally supports "the rights and liberties for all persons, regardless of sexual orientation."
The United Methodist Church's Book of Resolutions, which contains the denomination's policy statements on social issues, also calls on the denomination to "dedicate itself to a ministry of Christ-like hospitality and compassion to persons of all sexual orientation ...welcoming sexual minorities, their friends, and families into our churches."
The church, which hosts Boy Scouts Troop 5 and Venturing Crew 5 in Dallas, also urged Boy Scouts leadership "to draft a subsequent resolution eliminating heterosexuality as a requirement for an adult's participation in Scouting."
"We believe that Christ's teachings, as well as the Scout Oath and Law which flow from Christ's words, call us to welcome all persons of good will in the training of children to become wholesome adults," the church's statement continued.
"As a practical matter, we witness on a daily basis the contributions that gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered individuals make to our community."
At the same time, a group of Protestant leaders and advocates - including at least eight United Methodists - signed a statement released Monday, May 20, calling on Boy Scouts not to revise the group's current stance.
"A proposal from the BSA board to prohibit 'discrimination' based on 'sexual orientation or preference' for BSA members potentially would open the Scouts to a wide range of open sexual expressions," said the statement, which first appeared on the Touchstone blog. "In our current culture, it is more important than ever for our churches to protect and provide moral nurture for young people and for the Scouts."
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which is the Boy Scouts' largest charter partner, has offered tacit approval of a change in policy to allow gay teens but not gay adult leaders.
"The current BSA proposal constructively addresses a number of important issues that have been part of the ongoing dialogue, including consistent standards for all BSA partners, recognition that Scouting exists to serve and benefit youth rather than Scout leaders, a single standard of moral purity for youth in the program, and a renewed emphasis for Scouts to honor their duty to God," Mormon leaders said in an April 25 statement.
Leaders of United Methodist Men, however, have not issued an official statement on the specific proposal ahead of the vote.
But leaders of United Methodist Men sent a letter dated Feb. 19 to Boy Scouts of America urging the group to delay any proposed change to its ban on gay members and leaders. The letter did not specify how long such a delay should last.
Longtime commitment to Scouting
More than 70 percent of Scout units are chartered to religiously affiliated groups, reports Boy Scouts of America. Those charters comprise 62 percent of the group's 2.7 million youth members.
The United Methodist Church is second only to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the number of congregations that host Boy Scouts of America groups. The United Methodist Church hosts more Cub Scout packs than any other religious group.
As of 2012, 6,700 United Methodist congregations served 363,876 young people through 10,868 Cub Scout packs, Boy Scout troops and Venturing crews. Venturing crews are open to both young men and women, ages 14 to 20.
In addition to Boy Scout-affiliated groups, United Methodist Men promotes other youth organizations including Girl Scouts of the USA, Big Brothers Big Sisters Amachi Partnership, Camp Fire USA and 4-H.
Those groups have varied policies regarding sexual orientation. For example, Girl Scouts of the USA has a policy that states its local councils and troops do not discriminate or recruit on the basis of race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, national origin or physical or developmental disability.
The Girl Scouts' rationale is that "sexual orientation is a private matter for girls and their families to address."
"Girl Scouts has established standards that do not permit the advocacy or promotion of a personal lifestyle or sexual orientation," says Girl Scouts policy. "Adults working with girls must adhere to these standards."
Months of feedback
Boy Scouts of America announced Jan. 28 that it was considering leaving the question of whether to have gay leaders and members up to its local charter organizations. On Feb. 6, Boy Scouts of America's national board decided to "further engage with representatives of Scouting's membership" and postponed any decision until this month's meeting.
Hanke, the top executive of United Methodist Men, first released a statement on Jan. 29 affirming how the Boy Scouts' proposed changes would be implemented.
In that statement, he said, "the proposed changes are actually more consistent with the current Book of Discipline," the denomination's law book.
While stating that the practice of homosexuality is "incompatible with Christian teaching," the church proclaims a commitment "to be in ministry for and with all persons."
That statement also noted that Hanke and Coppock, national director of Scouting ministries, "were consulted by the leadership at the highest levels of BSA prior to the proposal to change membership requirements."
After hearing from leaders threatening to quit over the proposed change, Hanke elaborated in a statement Jan. 31, saying that what he endorsed was moving the responsibility for selecting leaders and members to the local church level.
The second statement also emphasized that United Methodist Men played no part in helping Boy Scouts of America formulate the proposed changes. The agency was only informed of the proposal.
"The reason we endorsed this model of implementation is because it allows your local church to continue to operate exactly like it is operating today," Hanke said in the Jan. 31 statement. "You choose the leaders, you recruit the Scouts; the leadership of your troop and pack reflects the traditions and values of your faith community," he wrote.
But in February, citing "overwhelmingly" negative feedback, leaders of United Methodist Men asked Boy Scouts of America to delay any possible change.
"A few have told us they support this proposed change by BSA; however, overall, the responses have been overwhelmingly against the proposed change," said the letter signed by Hanke and Mississippi Area Bishop James E. Swanson Sr., United Methodist Men's commission president.
*Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service.
News media contact: Heather Hahn, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or [email protected].