In his remarks to Boy Scouts of America’s (BSA) national annual business meeting on Thursday, BSA national president and former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates called on the organization to move swiftly to change its “unsustainable” national member prohibition on LGBT adults and vowed to ensure that local Scout councils that defy the current ban will not lose their charters.
At the May 2013 national meeting, roughly 1,400 voting members of the BSA’s national council voted 61-38 percent to end the ban on gay youth participating in the program, but reaffirmed their policy of mandatory discrimination against LGBT adult leaders and volunteers. This came despite recommendations from Honorary National President Barack Obama, former national executive board member Mitt Romney, and a wide range of corporate leaders that the organization eliminate its longstanding anti-LGBT policies.
Gates was elected president of the organization last May and announced at the time that while he would have preferred the 2013 policy change allow gay Scoutmasters as well, he also believed “strongly that to re-open the membership issue or try to take last year’s decision to the next step would irreparably fracture or perhaps even provoke a formal, permanent split in this movement.” He said he he would “oppose any effort to re-open this issue” during his two-year tenure as national president.
On Thursday, however, Gates said, “Events during the past year have confronted us with urgent challenges I did not forsee and which we cannot ignore.” Examples, he noted, include internal challenges from councils including Greater New York and the Denver Area in open defiance of the national ban, other councils adopting LGBT-inclusive non-discrimination policies, and “social, political and juridical changes taking place in our country,” such as the mass outcries over license-to-discriminate proposals in Indiana and Arkansas and the upcoming Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality. “We must deal with the world as it is, not as we might wish it to be,” he told the organization, adding, “The status quo in our movement’s membership standards cannot be sustained.” He said that while the BSA could revoke charters to councils that bucked the national policy, doing so would deny hundreds of thousands of Scouts access and thus he “will not take that path.”
Gates also noted that with the evolving legal landscape, it was possible that “the courts simply will order us at some point to change our membership policy,” and that this will “probably happen sooner rather than later.” Noting that he believes the organization’s legal defenses for discrimination have weakened since a 2000 Supreme Court 5 to 4 ruling backed the right of the BSA, as a private organization, to set its own membership standards, Gates said that if BSA waits for the courts to act, “We could end up with a broad ruling that could forbid any kind of membership standard, including our foundation belief in our duty to God and our focus on serving the specific needs of boys.” The organization also prohibits youths and adults who do not espouse a belief in God and does not allow girls in most of its youth programs.
Instead, Gates suggested, the organization can move “sooner rather than later” to change the policy to allow the sponsors of each individual Boy Scout unit to determine their own standards for adult leaders. Such a policy would allow LGBT-friendly community groups and religious entities who charter Boy Scout troops and Cub Scout packs to opt not to discriminate, but would also allow other sponsors to continue to exclude LGBT adults if they so choose.
Corporations and United Way chapters have pulled funding for the BSA since the early 1990s over their discriminatory practices. An online challenge this month collected tens of thousands of dollars in pledges that the organization would receive if it lifted the ban at this meeting. That appears unlikely at this point, as any change would have to be approved by the national executive board or the national council’s full membership.
Gates concluded that “the one thing we cannot do is put our heads in the sand and pretend this challenge will go away or abate.” BSA can “act on our own or we can be forced to act,” he warned, “but, either way, I suspect we don’t have a lot of time.”
Eagle Scout Zach Wahls, executive director of Scouts for Equality, praised the announcement as “another step forward for the Boy Scouts of America.” In a press release, he said, “Dr. Gates has built his reputation on straight talk and tough decisions, and I’m glad he’s fully endorsing a re-evaluation of the Boy Scouts’ ban on gay adults. It seems like the Boy Scouts will continue an internal dialogue about the subject and that a change within the next year or two is imminent.”