The president of the Boy Scouts of America called Thursday to end the Scouts’ blanket ban on gay adult leaders, warning the group’s executives that “we must deal with the world as it is, not as we might wish it to be.”
Speaking at the Boy Scouts’ annual national meeting in Atlanta, Robert Gates said cascading events — including potential employment-discrimination lawsuits and the impending Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage, as well as mounting internal dissent over the exclusionary policy — had led him to conclude that the current rules “cannot be sustained.”
If the Boy Scouts do not change on their own, he said, the courts are likely to force them to, and “we must all understand that this will probably happen sooner rather than later.”
In a nod to the religious organizations that sponsor a majority of local Scout troops, he said they should remain free to set their own guidelines for leaders.
“I support a policy that accepts and respects our different perspectives and beliefs,” he said, adding, “I truly fear that any other alternative will be the end of us as a national movement.”
In his speech, Gates, who is also a former secretary of defense and director of the CIA, evoked his experience with the Pentagon. In his role as defense secretary, he helped end the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy — which was similar to the current Boy Scouts policy toward Scout leaders — and discrimination against gay men and lesbians. He recalled that in 2010, a federal judge declared the military’s policy to be illegal.
“Only a stay granted by the appeals court — granted, I believe, mainly because we were in the process of changing the law — prevented dramatic disruption in the armed forces,” he said Thursday.
“If we wait for the courts to act,” he continued, “we could end up with a broad ruling that could forbid any kind of membership standard,” such as the belief in a duty to God and the goal of specifically serving the needs of boys.
Gates took on the job as president in May 2014, for a two-year term. He said he had originally intended to put off consideration of the divisive issue of gay adults, allowing the Boy Scouts a respite after a contentious meeting in 2013 at which the organization decided to permit openly gay youths to belong to it.
He said that he had not yet made a formal proposal to the national board but that it must act soon to head off possible disaster. Though his position is voluntary, Gates, an Eagle Scout, wields enormous power in the Boy Scouts, which have been struggling to stem a shrinking membership for decades.
The treatment of gay men and boys has been a source of wrenching debate. Conservative religious groups that sponsor many Scout troops, including the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Roman Catholic Church and some evangelical churches, opposed the participation of openly gay members while local leaders in more liberal regions have called for an end to discrimination.
In 2013, Boy Scout leaders from across the country voted, with more than 60 percent approval, to say that no youth may be denied membership “on the basis of sexual orientation or preference alone.” But it left intact the even more disputed policy that no openly gay adults could serve in the organization.
Since then, a Scout group in New York has defied the rules by employing an openly gay 18-year-old as a camp counselor, and several other councils around the country have expressed opposition to the ban.
Gates said Thursday, in prepared remarks released by the Boy Scouts, that the national leadership would take no action against defiant local councils. At the same time, he said that in the name of religious freedom, the Scouts should allow local sponsoring organizations “to determine the standards for their Scout leaders.”
“Such an approach would allow all churches, which sponsor some 70 percent of our Scout units, to establish leadership standards consistent with their faith,” he said. “We must, at all costs, preserve the religious freedom of our church partners to do this.”
The Mormon church uses the Boy Scouts as its main organization for boys and is by far the largest sponsor of Scout troops, overseeing more than 437,000 youths as of 2013, of a national total of 2.6 million youths participating in the Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts, Explorers and other programs.
The church issued a guarded statement Thursday: “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will, of course, examine any such changes very carefully to assess how they might impact our own century-long association with the BSA,” referring to the Boy Scouts of America.
If the Scouts’ executive board adopts the policy Gates has recommended, letting local groups set their own leadership rules, the church is not likely to be affected.
Religious conservatives, who had already condemned the Boy Scouts for the 2013 decision to admit openly gay boys, were strongly critical of Gates’ plan.
John Stemberger, president of the Florida Family Policy Council, a conservative Christian group, said: “I think it’s a sad thing. I think that many families and boys will be negatively affected by the Boy Scouts’ departure from their long-standing principles.”
Stemberger is chairman of a Christian youth group, Trail Life USA, that was formed as an alternative to the Boy Scouts after the 2013 shift.
Zach Wahls, executive director of Scouts for Equality, a group that has campaigned for change, called Gates’ proposal “undeniably a step forward.”
“It seems like the Boy Scouts will continue an internal dialogue about the subject,” he said, adding that a relaxing of the national ban seemed all but certain.
The executive board could mandate such a change at any time in the coming year, he said, or it could decide, as it did in 2013, to put the matter up for a vote at next year’s annual convention of scout leaders from around the country.
Sarah Kate Ellis, president of GLAAD, a gay rights organization, also praised Gates’ comments but expressed concern about the potential for further discrimination.
Gates said Thursday: “I am not asking the national board for any action to change our current policy at this meeting. But I must speak as plainly and bluntly to you as I spoke to presidents when I was director of CIA and secretary of defense.
“We must deal with the world as it is,” he said, “not as we might wish it to be.”