The Boys Scouts of America’s decision on July 27 to lift its national ban on openly gay adult leaders has the support of United Methodists of varied theological perspectives.
The key for some is that the new policy allows church-sponsored units to choose leaders based on the congregation’s religious convictions. That means local United Methodist churches can restrict their leadership to heterosexuals.
“No church will be required to accept any volunteer as a Scout leader simply because of the new policy,” Gil Hanke, the top executive of United Methodist Men, said in a statement.
The Commission on United Methodist Men is responsible for promoting the use of scouting ministries and civic youth-serving agencies across the denomination.
Hanke noted that as part of their charters, the Boy Scouts of America provides local churches with general liability insurance for its board, officers and volunteers related to authorized scouting activities.
As part of the resolution approved July 27, the Boy Scouts’ executive board also committed to indemnify and defend legally any religious chartered group against discrimination claims. Federal courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court in a unanimous ruling in 2012, have ruled that religious bodies are free to set their own rules for choosing and dismissing leaders.
All Scout volunteers, regardless of their sexual orientation, must still meet the Boy Scouts’ behavioral standards.
More than 71 percent of Scout units are chartered to faith-based groups, reports Boy Scouts of America. 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 units.
The United Methodist Church also has the highest number of Cub Scouts, with an estimated 200,000 members. Altogether, the denomination has more than 330,000 youth members participating in its chartered Cub Scout packs, Boy Scout troops and Venturing crews.
After the July 27 policy change, Mormon leadership announced the church is re-evaluating its involvement in the Scouting program and looking at ways to serve boys in its worldwide membership.
But it’s too soon to know how most congregations in the less hierarchical United Methodist Church will respond.
Dan Entwistle, managing executive director for programs and ministries at The United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas, said he expects the Boy Scouts may lose members who feel they can no longer support the Boy Scout organization in the future.
“Church leaders understand the pain that accompanies losing members,” Entwistle said. “And yet there are certainly others from non-traditional families and from the general public who will now feel they are able to participate more fully in Scouting than ever before.”
His church, which has the denomination’s largest attendance in the United States, has not yet discussed the “increase in local freedom to determine leadership,” he said. Church of the Resurrection hosts a Cub Scout pack, a Boy Scout troop and a co-ed troop for adolescents and young adults with special needs.
“But this is not new territory for churches,” he added. “We would enter that conversation the same way we engage in leadership questions about any of our ministries.”
The United Methodist Book of Discipline, which contains the denomination’s laws and social teachings, identifies homosexuality as “incompatible with Christian teaching” but also commits the church “to be in ministry for and with all persons.”
Church law prohibits “self-avowed practicing” gays and lesbians from serving as clergy, but the book does not forbid them to serve as lay leaders in other roles in the church.
Church advocates weigh in
The church’s stance on homosexuality remains a source of debate among many United Methodists.
Church members had varied reactions to the Boy Scouts’ 2013 decision to admit gay members but not gay leaders. For some that change went too far, and for some, not far enough.
But leaders of unofficial United Methodist advocacy groups with very different views each expressed at least tacit approval of this week’s policy change.
“We are grateful that the Boy Scouts allows for local churches and other sponsoring groups to maintain leadership qualifications that uphold our religious convictions,” said the Rev. Thomas Lambrecht, vice president and general manager of Good News. The group advocates for maintaining the church’s teachings on homosexuality. “We hope the federal government will do likewise.”
Reconciling Ministries Network, which advocates for the denomination becoming more inclusive, celebrated the Boy Scouts of America’s decision.
"It's so important that young gay and bi(sexual) Boy Scouts will finally be able to see adults similar to them in leadership, ending the subtle message that their identities were something they should grow out of in order to have a lifelong relationship with the organization,” said M Barclay, the group’s spokesperson.
“While discrimination is still permissible on a local level, we know harm will continue to be done to both youth and adults alike. But we celebrate this move in a positive direction.”
Reasons for change
The U.S. Supreme Court in 2000 upheld the Scouts' legal position that forcing the organization to accept gay troop leaders would violate its constitutional rights to free expression and free association.
But in recent years, the Boy Scouts of America had come under increasing legal pressure to be open to gay members and leaders alike, as more states passed laws prohibiting discrimination against gay individuals. The national organization also was losing corporate sponsors.
“I did not believe the adult leadership policy could be sustained,” Robert M. Gates, the Scouts’ national president and former U.S. defense secretary, said in a video released July 27. “Any effort to do so was inevitably going to result in legal battles multiple jurisdictions at staggering cost.”
Already at least one legal challenge is averted. In response to the change, the New York Times reported, the New York State attorney general, Eric T. Schneiderman, said his office was ending its investigation of whether the Scouts violate state anti-discrimination laws.
Boy Scouts of America also has been seeing its membership drop as more activities compete for youth attention.
Impact on one United Methodist church
Still, at least one United Methodist church is hoping Boy Scouts of America will invite its scouting group to rejoin.
In 2014, the Boy Scouts of America revoked the charter of the Scouting unit at Rainier Beach United Methodist Church in Washington after it learned the group’s Scoutmaster, Geoffrey McGrath, is openly gay.
The congregation decided to stand with McGrath, an Eagle Scout, and church’s troop affiliated with the far smaller Baden-Powell Service Association, a scouting group founded in 2006 and named for Scouting founder Robert Baden-Powell. The Rainier Beach congregation now has 17 youth and four adult volunteers involved its scouting program.
McGrath, like Reconciling Ministries Network, said the new Boy Scouts policy still allows discrimination. “The BSA’s announcements have not once addressed the needs of LGBT kids,” he said, using the initials for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender.
“They have not discussed the obligations that they have to their youth and their members for kids to be raised and supported in full integrity of their persons. That’s a problem, so there’s still more work to do.”
Nevertheless, he said would welcome the chance for his troop to maintain affiliations with both the Baden Powell Association and the Boy Scouts of America.
“Change is incremental, and it takes time,” he said. “But there is some urgency because kids grow up fast, and kids need the support BSA could provide.”
Larry Coppock, director of Scouting ministries for United Methodist Men, said support for the Boy Scouts of America historically has helped The United Methodist Church to carry out its mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
“Fifty percent of the youth who meet in our churches through Boy Scout troops, Cub Scout packs and Venturing crews come from unchurched families,” he said. “Scouting represents a ‘back door’ ministry for bringing youth to Christ.”
Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected].