The Boy Scouts’ slow crawl into the 21st century

The Boy Scouts of America were a political battleground long before Donald Trump’s widely-panned jamboree tirade

CREDIT: Diana Ofoso
CREDIT: Diana Ofoso

Thirty seven years after being kicked out of scouting for being “homosexual” during his freshman year of college, Tim Curran still gets choked up remembering his 17-year-old legal battle to get the Boy Scouts of America to permit LGBTQ youths and leaders.

“At the time I filed the suit, I would have imagined things would change in time to go back to my troop by the time I graduated college,” he recounted in a phone interview. “That didn’t happen, decades went by —  and tens of thousands of other gay men were denied a similar opportunity. And all for what?”

Though the California Supreme Court rejected his challenge in 1998, long after Curran had lost all connection to the organization he once loved, a flurry of recent changes over the past four years has meant that gay, bisexual, and transgender boys are now welcome in Boy Scouting; LGBTQ adult leaders are able to serve in some troops; and girls may soon be able to participate in the program.

But these steps toward inclusion have coincided with a decision by the largest sponsor of Scouting units — the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS)  — to curtail its century-long relationship with the Boy Scouts of America (BSA).


How did an organization that in 2002 claimed that “an avowed homosexual cannot serve as a role model for the traditional moral values espoused in the Scout Oath and Law,” and as recently as 2012 reaffirmed it would “not grant membership to individuals who are open or avowed homosexuals” come to change its longstanding anti-LGBTQ policies? And how did the largest chartering partner — a church responsible for sponsoring more than a third of all troops as of 2013 — come to reevaluate and scale back a close affiliation with BSA that dates back to 1913?

To answer the chicken-or-egg question—whether and how these two seismic changes tie together—ThinkProgress spoke with dozens of current and former Boy Scouts, council leaders, and experts on Scouting and the LDS church. What emerged was a story of two historically conservative organizations trying to stay relevant among younger Americans, amid declining membership. (The Boy Scouts of America’s press office did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this story.)

‘Scouting values are not for sale’

Incorporated in 1910, the Boy Scouts of America has long been one of the nation’s largest youth organizations. It aimed to teach young men character, values, and self-reliance. A strictly non-partisan organization, it was granted a Congressional charter in 1916 and has had every president of the United States since William Howard Taft serve as honorary president.

While the Scout law requires that all in the organization be “helpful, friendly, courteous, [and] kind,” to all, for many years some restrictions applied. Beyond the obvious requirement that Cub and Boy Scouts be males under the age of 18, all scouts, adult leaders, and employees are required to have some religious beliefs that include a “duty to God.” And, as Tim Curran found out in a phone call with his local council’s head, gay people were not allowed in the organization.

Tim Curran in 1981
Eagle Scout Tim Curran filed his lawsuit against the Boy Scouts in 1981. CREDIT: AP Photo/stf/fong

Evan Wolfson, a civil rights attorney who would later become the driving force for marriage equality in the United States, argued a challenge to the ban before the United States Supreme Court in 2000. He recounted in an interview that the LGBTQ ban was something of a “secret policy” for many years. It was “never shared with the membership, put in materials, or broadcast, [but rather was] simply a series of discriminations [against gay] people who got their attention.” Only once the issue “was dragged into the spotlight by litigation” did the national board formally ratify that prohibition.


In 1992, after the United Way of the Bay Area in San Francisco, Bank of America, Levi Strauss, and Wells Fargo announced they would stop making donations to the organization due to its discriminatory actions, the BSA fired back, suggesting such boycotts and homosexuality were un-American. In an editorial that appears in scouting publications, BSA leaders warned that “Scouting’s values are not for sale [and] won’t be sold at any price.” Urging “Mainstream America” to make its voice heard to counter “the views and values of one or two special interest groups,” they promised BSA would see a “significant growth in the 90’s” due to a “continued emphasis on its traditional family values.”

But that membership boom was not to be. And the first cracks in the unified front against gay boys and adults began to show soon after.

Mitt happens

In February of 1992, the national executive board voted unanimously to reaffirm that Boy Scouts of America would “not permit avowed homosexuals to be registered as leaders or members.”

Mitt Romney, at an October 1994 debate
Mitt Romney, at an October 1994 debate, opposes the BSA ban on gay members. CREDIT: C-SPAN

But a new member added to the board after that vote would surprise the national organization with a public criticism two years later. In 1994, a businessman named Mitt Romney launched a campaign — as a Republican — against longtime Democratic Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy. Not long after attending his first meeting as a national executive board member, he was asked in a debate about the Boy Scouts’ policy. Romney replied that he felt “all people should be allowed to participate in the Boy Scouts regardless of their sexual orientation.” A BSA national spokesman responded that his answer “seems to be inconsistent with our policy and as a member of the executive board he is expected to support our policy.”

Romney’s support for a change was particularly noteworthy given that he had spent years as an LDS bishop and Boston Massachusetts stake president (the official overseeing multiple local “ward”-level congregations). This lay position made him the spiritual leader for Mormon congregations all across the Boston area. And his stated views put him quite very much at odds with the church’s position.


“The Mormon Church was very much front and center in pushing the Scouts to adopt an antigay attack position,” Wolfson told the Advocate in 2005.

The church’s teachings at the time were that homosexuality is a choice and the work of Satan. And the church had adopted a (slightly customized) version of Boy Scouting as its official program for young men in 1928, chartering tens of thousands of Cub Scout packs and Boy Scout troops around the country. As the church grew to be the largest sponsor of scout units, its influence within BSA became quite significant throughout the 20th century.

A ThinkProgress review of the 2016 BSA national leadership found at least ten current or former high-ranking LDS church officials serving on the national executive committee and advisory council. The BSA’s national commissioner — one of the three top officials in the organization — is a former high ranking church official and church president Thomas S. Monson himself is even an BSA national executive board member.

Chuck Wolfe, a now-openly gay man who would later lead the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund for 12 years, was also once on the national board member during his year-long tenure as national explorer president. Over that time, he recalled, he served on BSA’s “amazingly powerful” relationships committee, “where the LDS church and other sponsoring organizations had their fiefdom.”

“I was required to meet with the elders of the LDS church. I’m not Mormon but went to the offices of Elder Vaughn Featherstone, met with him, and was proclaimed a wonderful young man. He autographed a book for me,” he recounted, noting that this happened with no other religious group. “I was not sent to meet leaders of the Catholic Church, Baptist Church, et cetera.”

Eric Hawkins, spokesman for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, said in an email that the church “has always been clear with BSA leadership about our beliefs and standards expected of all youth and adult participants in our Scouting units.”

For many years, the intertwined LDS and BSA leadership would stand firmly behind the LGBTQ ban. And the number of youths in the scouting program declined fairly steadily from its 1972 peak to a fraction of that today.

Kicked out

As the 1990s wound down, the California Supreme Court issued its ruling that the state’s public accommodation law did not apply to the Boy Scouts, ending Tim Curran’s long court battle. But BSA’s discriminatory policy was again brought to the forefront by two major forces: a gay New Jersey Eagle Scout (Boy Scouting’s highest rank) kicked out of the organization for sexual orientation and a straight California pre-teen who was still working his way up to Eagle.

James Dale’s story was not all that different Curran’s: awarded Scouting’s highest rank for being an outstanding scout, then expelled from the organization when his local council discovered he is gay. But unlike in California, the New Jersey state supreme court unanimously ruled in 1999 the Boy Scouts had violated the state’s sexual orientation non-discrimination law. The Boy Scouts appealed to the U.S Supreme Court and in early 2000, they heard the case.

James Dale with Wolfson and Buckel
James Dale in 1999 , center, with attorneys Evan Wolfson (right) and David Buckel (left) CREDIT: AP Photo/Stuart Ramson

The LDS church, along with several other socially conservative religious groups that chartered Boy Scout troops, filed an amicus brief making clear that they wanted the ban to continue. “Among all of Scouting’s supporters,” the groups wrote, “there are none more important to Boy Scouts of America (“BSA”) than amici.” They argued that “Scouting views homosexual conduct as inconsistent with its fundamental moral code,” and that this “is consistent with the broader religious teachings about sexuality” they espoused.(Hawkins said this has not changed, as the LDS church still  “teaches that sexual relations are only appropriate between a man and woman who are legally married.”)

Most notably, the brief warned that the LDS church, “the largest single sponsor of Scouting units in the United States — would withdraw from Scouting if it were compelled to accept openly homosexual scout leaders.” An unnamed “ranking leader” in the BSA told Newsweek that “[t]he Mormons have all the cards.” (The BSA national spokesman at the time disputed the claim.)

The Supreme Court’s conservative majority ruled, 5 to 4, that since the Boy Scouts of America are a private organization, they have a first amendment right discriminate if it believes that “homosexual conduct is inconsistent with the values it seeks to instill.”

A bullish then-BSA Chief Scout Executive Roy Williams celebrated this affirmation. He told the Oregonian that the “single most important person” in the LGBTQ discussion is the parents, who “chose Scouting to help their children be better people, and when they start walking away from us, that’s the signal to tell us to revisit the issue.” “I don’t see that on the horizon,” he added. At the time, BSA claimed 3,351,969 youths in its traditional scouting programs — already down from more than 4.2 million in 1989.

Wolfson, who represented Dale, notes that this was not ultimately the win that BSA had hoped it would be. “During the course of the battle, and after court got it so wrong, the burden was thrown back on the members… Corporate sponsors, synagogues, temples, churches, private entities sponsoring troops, and parents, as well as children, began pushing back.”

Under pressure

Much of that pressure came from a young scout in Petaluma, California. In 1997, 12-year old scout Steven Cozza learned that the organization prohibited LGBTQ and non-theist scouts and decided that policy needed changing. He enlisted father Scott and his scoutmaster Dave Rice. After a letter to the editor and a press conference, the trio co-founded Scouting for All, a national organization aimed at pressuring the BSA to change the policy (Rice had been involved in an earlier iteration that had largely fizzled a few years earlier).

“It skyrocketed from there,” remembered Scott Cozza. “It went national for some reason. Maybe it’s because it was a 12 year old kid questioning the BSA, I don’t know. People were just rallying around him, all around the country.”

They launched a multi-pronged campaign to educate people in and outside the organization and to pressure the leadership to change their policy.

Steven Cozza, age 15
Steven Cozza, then a 15-year-old Eagle Scout, speaks at a 2000 equality march CREDIT: C-SPAN

“People didn’t know about the fact they discriminated,” Steven Cozza — now a 32 year old real estate agent — recalled. “Once they learned, they started freaking out and wanted to help. We were spreading awareness.”

At first, the BSA largely ignored their efforts. Steven repeatedly traveled to BSA headquarters in Irving, Texas hoping to meet with the chief scout executive. “They’d meet us and the front desk, say Mr. [Jere] Ratcliffe wasn’t available. They never wanted to face it. They never wanted to talk to us.”

Dave Rice, now 88 and retired, said eventually the organization grew tired of their pushing. “To kick a boy out of scouting, on his way to Eagle at the time, would not have seemed a very nice thing to do. I suspect that was why they chose me instead of him, who was older and should have known better, I guess, at least according to their standards.”

Though he had been involved with the organization for 59 years — as a 9-year-old Cub Scout, longtime volunteer, and onetime scouting professional —without warning he received a letter in March 1998 informing him that he was being kicked out of the organization. “By your actions of involving Scouting youth in your efforts to change Scouting’s policy of not selecting open homosexuals for leadership positions, you have disqualified yourself from volunteer leadership in Scouting,” the letter read. Rice was heartbroken. “I wasn’t surprised at it,” he said, but “it still came as a shock to me.” Scott Cozza was also asked to cease involvement in his son’s troop.

Steven attracted national media attention, traveling around the country speaking out about hope that all people would be able to be part of BSA. Penn & Teller made his efforts and the LDS church’s role in opposing them the subject of an episode of their TV series Bullshit! and he was the focal point of a documentary called Scouts Honor which aired on PBS’ POV in 2001.

And the pressure on BSA continued to build: noted Eagle Scout Steven Spielberg resigned from its national advisory board, a member of Congress proposed revoking the organization’s congressional charter, and dozens of local United Way charitable organizations pulled funding , citing their own non-discrimination policies.

But as much of the estimated $83 million in United Way funds got cut off, the BSA become more reliant on its LDS partners for funding. In addition to the millions in membership dues the church paid to automatically register its male youths in the program, it also organized massive annual fundraising campaigns at the local council level annually.

A push from within

As the national BSA dug its heels, a group of local councils — mostly from urban areas —  pushed internally for change. On April 27, 2001, leaders from nine councils submitted a resolution to the national board that would have opened all scout “membership and leadership positions … to persons regardless of their sexual orientation, subject to compliance with Scouting’s standards of conduct,” but letting each chartering organization set its own standards for adult leaders.

Mike Harrison, the former Orange County Council chairman of the board, was one of those leaders. “I am not a gay activist, but I have always been concerned about BSA representing a wide population and the kind of diversity I experienced as a scout,” he recollected in an interview. “I said I couldn’t stand by and let this one pass… The leadership at that point was dominated by the more conservative outlook. They couldn’t believe they weren’t doing the right thing; for a group of us to say, ‘we’re not all on the same page here,’ was a bit of an eye opener.”

2002 Resolution
CREDIT: Boy Scouts of America Scoutsource

Jay Lenrow, a Maryland attorney who has chaired the Baltimore Area Council and the National Jewish Committee on Scouting and been executive vice president for BSA’s eastern region, also endorsed change. “[I]t was a desire, I believe, for the organization to remain relevant and to still be able to provide all the wonderful things that scouting can do for young people in a much more pluralistic setting.”

Lewis Greenblatt, then the president of the Chicago Area Council and another sponsor of the resolution, noted that in his urban council, the policy “really negatively impacted” the potential scouts they most wanted to serve. “Because of the policy, membership dropped, funding dropped, and traditional and non-traditional programs for underserved boys were substantially negatively impacted.”

With the LDS Church and other social conservatives pressuring them to do so, the national board instead enacted a February 2002 reaffirmation of its ban on “avowed homosexuals,” stating that “these values cannot be subject to local option choices.” For the next decade, proposals to change the policy were quickly farmed out to a committee to die.

Changing dynamics

Alvin Townley, author of two books about the Boy Scouts and a one-time national scouting spokesman for the United Methodist Church, notes that he the rapid change on how people viewed the issue of LGBTQ inclusion happened within the ranks of Boy Scouts as it happened nationally. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen the public or scouting shift general opinion as rapidly as they have over LGBT issues in the past several years,” he observed.

But while those in the program were becoming more and more supportive of change and the national leadership continued to defend the policy, the number of Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts each year continued to decline significantly.

While the LDS church continued to enroll hundreds of thousands of boys in the program, many more progressive families stopped enrolling their kids in Boy Scouting entirely.

After falling to fewer than 3.4 million Cub and Boy Scouts in 2000, the numbers dropped even further after the Supreme Court’s ruling that the organization was free to exclude. The BSA’s annual reports document a steady decline  to  just about 2.7 million in 2010.

Even those that did remain were not immune to the progress we were making in changing hearts and minds and changing society, changing where business stands, where the government stands with regard to gay people generally.

As progressive parents stopped enrolling their kids in the program, the LDS troops became a larger and larger percentage of the Cub and Boy Scout population. Evan Wolfson recalled there being concern that “if everybody who opposed discrimination left, then you basically would be leaving this iconic institution in the hands of discriminators.”

But even so, generational change meant growing LGBTQ acceptance even among the children of the more conservative parents who kept their boys in scouting.  “Even those that did remain were not immune to the progress we were making in changing hearts and minds and changing society, changing where business stands, where the government stands with regard to gay people generally. They were not immune to the voices of even the young people and families who wanted to join,” Wolfson said.

BSA National Area Council
CREDIT: Josh Israel

Townley added that this caused many of the volunteers on the national executive board to re-think things. “The decreasing membership has become a higher priority for everyone in the organization. The leadership recognized the need for changes on many levels. The volunteer leadership certainly encouraged that and perhaps sped up the response.”

As the American public’s views on LGBTQ issues rapidly evolved from 2000 onward, so too did the Mormon leadership’s rhetoric. Following widespread national attention — much of it unfavorable — over the LDS church’s involvement in the passage of Proposition 8 (California’s unconstitutional referendum on same-sex marriage) in 2008, it has takennotably different public stance on what it calls “same-sex attraction.”

Matthew Bowman, a history professor at Henderson State University and author of The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith, explained that “the church did not expect the blowback it got over Prop. 8. I think the church leaders were surprised. There was a sense that we need to address this issue differently.”

Patrick Mason, dean of Claremont Graduate University’s arts and humanities school, associate professor of religion, and the Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies, has also noticed this evolvement.

“Beginning in the 2000s and advancing into this decade the church came to accept that homosexuality is an inborn orientation, not a choice.” That “dramatic shift,” he notes, means that the church is now “a little more friendly to boys who identified as gay — [they] could say [those attractions are] no fault of their own, we’re not going to punish or marginalize them because of orientation.” But, he notes, even as the church has “become more accepting, they’ve been wary of the influence or leadership of gay men in Boy Scouts or priesthood leadership positions.”

Hawkins acknowledged that “[t]o some degree” the backlash over Prop. 8 may have been a factor in the church’s changing rhetoric, but added, “I think the world, as a whole, has gained a better understanding of homosexuality and how to talk about it..”

Still, the BSA’s ban on both gay scouts and LGBTQ leaders continued. With Steven Cozza pursuing a career as a professional cyclist, Scouting for All was taken over by new leadership and became mostly inactive after 2008, as the national equality movement turned its focus to the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell repeal and to the marriage fight.

A false start

With the national battle for marriage equality taking front and center, by the early 2010s, the issue of discrimination in the Boy Scouts of America had largely faded from the national news. But a mom in Ohio would soon bring it make to the public’s attention.

Jennifer Tyrrell was a volunteer leader of her 7-year-old son’s Cub Scout den. When the BSA discovered she was a lesbian, she was ousted. With the assistance of GLAAD, Tyrrell launched a petition on April 17, 2012 urging the organization to change their policy once and for all. More than 350,000 people would ultimately sign the petition and her effort received endorsements from an array of Hollywood stars, including former Boy Scouts celebrity pitchman George Takei.

Her situation also caught the attention of Eagle Scout Zach Wahls, then a 20-year-old University of Iowa student. A year earlier, Wahls had become an LGBTQ rights icon when a YouTube video of his powerful testimony before the Iowa House of Representatives, about growing up the son of two lesbian moms and the importance of the legal protection their marriage provided for his family, went viral. Recalling his own moms’ involvement in his Cub Scouting experience years early, he volunteered to help her efforts.

Zach Wahls
Zach Wahls in 2012. CREDIT: AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

On May 30, Wahls and others traveled to Orlando for the BSA’s annual conference with printed copies of the first 275,000 signed petitions. And unlike with Steven Cozza more than a decade earlier, this time the BSA was willing to listen. A group of national leaders, including then-national spokesman Deron Smith, held a private conference and received the petitions — though Smith released a statement to the Miami Herald that the group did not plan to change the policy.

Wahls and a group of other straight Eagle Scouts formed Scouts for Equality, a new organization working just to lift the ban on LGBTQ scouts and leaders. On learning that a resolution had been again introduced to let chartering organizations set their own policies — but not realizing that it was unlikely to go anywhere — Wahls announced that a policy change was being considered.  The national spokesman acknowledged the resolution had been filed and would be “handled with respect,” but reiterated that the policy was likely to remain.

Scouts for Equality began to prepare for what they believed would be a six to 10 year campaign. The effort received a boost in the following weeks when two national executive council members — Ernst & Young CEO James Turley and AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson, who was vice president of the BSA at the time — announced that they would support lifting the anti-LGBTQ ban.

But days later, the BSA announced that a secret 11-person committee had been studying the policy for two years and had unanimously decided to keep the policy in place. The committee, they said, “came to the conclusion that this policy is absolutely the best policy for the Boy Scouts,” and BSA leadership agreed. Just weeks after promising careful consideration to the proposal to lift the ban, the organization had once again shelved it indefinitely.

A half-step forward

This setback did not put the issue to rest. It was back in the news in the summer of 2012, when Mitt Romney, now the Republican Party’s 2012 presidential nominee-apparent, was asked if he still supported the policy change. Already taking great criticism for his flip-flops on social issues, Romney held his ground on this one: through a spokeswoman he reaffirmed his 1994 statement that the BSA should lift its ban. His Democratic opponent, incumbent President of the United States and Honorary BSA President Barack Obama, quickly joined his opponent’s call for a policy change. The standard bearers of both national parties were now on record that the ban must go.

In January 2013, days after making news again for forcing a local Cub Scout pack to drop an LGBTQ-inclusive non-discrimination policy, the BSA’s national spokesman confirmed that a possible repeal of the national LGBTQ prohibition was under consideration and could come up at a February executive board meeting.

According to a New York Times article a few weeks later, the organization’s strategy to quietly review a possible change at the executive board level were shaken when someone leaked internal plans. The result: the matter would be delayed until the annual national meeting in May, to give more time to study any change. An official statement by the LDS church praised the decision to delay.

Rather than making a decision themselves, the executive board decided to put the question to the roughly 1,400-member national council (made up of representatives from hundreds of local BSA councils). But rather than give them a chance to consider the prohibition on LGBTQ adults, the board decided to ask only whether to lift the ban on gay and bisexual youth.

Even this half-measure was met with fierce opposition by anti-LGBTQ figures. The president of the American Baptists for Scouting warned of a “concerted effort to bring down a cultural icon.” Tony Perkins, head of the hate group Family Research Council, hosted a “Stand With Scouts Sunday” webcast to warn of dire consequences if the group allowed “open and avowed homosexuality within the Scouts.” Then-Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) appeared on the program to compare it to slavery and denounce “pop culture” for trying to “tear apart one of the great organizations” and replace its values with the “flavor of the month.”

But, notably, the LDS church did not oppose this change and many representatives from the large Utah scout councils backed the proposals.

Jennifer Tyrrell travelled to Grapevine, Texas. to support the policy change. CREDIT: AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez
Jennifer Tyrrell travelled to Grapevine, Texas. to support the policy change. CREDIT: AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez

Scouts for Equality quickly endorsed the partial repeal as “a crucial step” and promised to mount a campaign to ensure that the proposal garnered majority support. Wahls vowed to “continue to fight to push discrimination out of Scouting once and for all,” noting that for families like his own, “the BSA’s ban on gay leaders will continue to prevent many great and loving parents from sharing the joys of Scouting with their children.” The organization hired a staff of about 20, many veterans of the 2012 Obama re-election campaign, and begin working to shore up support.

On May 23, the results were announced: the proposal passed 61 percent to 38 percent. The LDS church put out a statement welcoming the result, reaffirming the relationship between the church and the BSA, and claiming that sexual orientation “has not previously been — and is not now — a disqualifying factor for boys who want to join Latter-day Saint Scout troops.” In a Washington Post column, the church’s managing director of public affairs wrote: “Rather than representing another episode of slippage in a very long culture war, as some religionists claimed, or a ‘step in the right direction,’ as some gay advocates defined it, BSA in reality reintroduced and reinforced some of its century-old core values and nailed those colors firmly to the mast in an unmistakable message.”

Mike Harrison, still active in the Orange County Council he once lead, noted that the LDS support for this move was a huge factor. “I’ll give Mormons a lot of credit,” he observed. “The 2013 decision couldn’t have happened without Wayne Perry,” the BSA national president at the time, who is a Mormon, and other key Church members. “They recognized we had a problem and [many] didn’t let their personal beliefs stop them from opening to change.”

Eagle at 17, banned at 18

Nine months after the vote, 17-year-old Pascal Tessier demonstrated why the new policy would not work. A Boy Scout from Kensington, Maryland, Tessier became the first known openly gay boy to receive the Eagle Scout award under the new policy in February 2014. But his celebration was short-lived; he knew that in a few months, he would turn 18 and be kicked out of the organization that had just given him its highest rank.

That May, the organization inaugurated a new national president: former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Given that he had overseen the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell in the military and helped phase out a similar ban at the CIA during his tenure as director, he seemed the perfect person to end the Boy Scouts’ ban once and for all. But as he accepted his new job, Gates extinguished some of that optimism: he made it clear that he would have supported lifting the ban on gay adult leaders as well a year earlier, but said he would not reopen the issue during his two-year term as national president.

BSA membership continued its long steady decline. Though some of this came from a small group of religious conservatives who left the organization in protest of the 2013 policy and started a fledgling anti-LGBTQ scouting alternative, a September 2014 AdAge magazine article posted on the official BSA news site noted “years of declining membership and bad publicity over the organization’s ban on openly gay adult leaders.”

Ironically, despite the organization’s 5 to 4 win in the Dale case, it was the legal system that ultimately pushed the BSA leadership to change its policy for adults. While the 2000 ruling had established that private organizations could set their own standards for membership and volunteers, it had not addressed the question of employment.

In October 2014 in Denver, Colorado, the local Boy Scout council offered a dream job as director of a new community adventure center to an openly lesbian woman named Yasmine Cassini. When she later asked if her sexual orientation would be a problem, the job offer was withdrawn.

Cassini enlisted the help of a powerhouse legal team in New York, Boies Schiller Flexner (the firm’s chairman David Boies had been one of the key lawyers behind the successful challenge of California’s Proposition 8). With their help, she filed a state civil rights complaint, noting that this employment discrimination violated the state’s Fair Employment Practices Act.

Pascal Tessier, left, receives his Eagle Scout award in 2014 CREDIT: 
AP Photo/Luis M. Alvarez,
Pascal Tessier, left, receives his Eagle Scout award in 2014 CREDIT: AP Photo/Luis M. Alvarez,

In April 2015, Tessier was offered a job at a New York Boy Scout camp. As he had turned 18 years old and was, of course, still openly gay his hiring was seen as a clear act of defiance by the Greater New York scout council. Concerned that the national organization could step in, Tessier also consulted Boies Schiller Flexner.

Josh Schiller, a partner at the firm, represented both and used those cases to put more “another level of pressure” on the BSA. He contacted the New York state attorney general’s civil rights bureau, which launched an investigation into the Boy Scouts’ hiring practices.

And now that the organization had lifted the ban on gay boys, it could not longer credibly make the legal claim that as a religious private organization, it believed homosexuality was incompatible with Scout values. Facing the real possibility of losing civil rights challenges in two states, Bob Gates seized the moment.

On May 21, 2015 — nearly two years to the day after the youth ban was lifted — he delivered his presidential remarks at the BSA’s national annual business meeting.

Vowing not to punish local councils that were refusing to enforce the ban on adult leaders, Gates warned that the organization “finds itself in an unsustainable position,” and that the organization’s legal defenses had weakened over 15 years.

“If we wait 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,” he continued — in effect, saying that unless the group ended its ban on LGBTQ adults, the courts might also someday make the group accept girls and non-theists. Instead, he urged, the organization could lift the ban and let chartering organizations set their own criteria for leaders. “We can act on our own or be forced to act but, either way, I suspect we don’t have a lot of time.”

Robert Gates at BSA 2014
Robert Gates, shortly before becoming president of the Boy Scouts of America in 2014. CREDIT: AP Photo/Mark Zaleski

Two months later, Boy Scouts of America executive board voted overwhelmingly to lift the national ban on gay, lesbian, and bisexual adults, to add sexual orientation to its non-discrimination policy for all BSA employees, and to let chartering organizations set their own standards for leaders. (The measure got a stunning 79 percent support. Some of the opposition came from those opposed to lifting the ban at all, while some came from board  members concerned about a provision in the resolution that promised to “defend and indemnify” religious chartering organizations that do decide to discriminate if they get sued).  

A Scouts for Equality statement from Wahls celebrated the victory: “While this policy change is not perfect — BSA’s religious chartering partners will be allowed to continue to discriminate against gay adults — it is difficult to overstate the importance of today’s announcement.” The organization’s expected six to 10 year fight had been won in just three.

The LDS church initially put out a statement criticizing the move, warning that its “century-long association with Scouting will need to be examined.” But a month later, after determining that this policy change did not prevent LDS troops from choosing heterosexual-only leaders, it announced that it “will go forward as a chartering organization of BSA, and as in the past.”

Jay Lenrow, who had helped draft this compromise more than a decade earlier, likes that under this new rule, sexual orientation is treated no differently from religion, in terms of leaving it to chartering partners to set their own standards for volunteer leaders. “In essence, that chartering organization has the right to choose its own leadership and the consistency is that it doesn’t matter whether the issue is inappropriate sexual contact of a heterosexual nature or religious nature or moral or ethical conduct ,” he explained. A secular troop can choose leaders who will not proselytize, he noted, and a Catholic troop can choose leaders who will lead the troop in a Sunday mass. And families can select the sort of troop they wish to join.

[I]t’s the story of a small group of people who believed they could change the world, because the BSA had taught them they could.

Advocates for change, inside and outside of the organization, give Gates a great deal of credit for the speech and the change that followed.

“Part of the reason I think Gates was brought it was [the board] needed someone who would help them move,” Evan Wolfson opined. “I think he was brought in to help.”

Looking back, Zach Wahls called the victory, “a combination of two things: first, it’s the story of a growing America that affirms the worth and dignity of LGBT people. And second, it’s the story of a small group of people who believed they could change the world, because the BSA had taught them they could.” From Curran and Dale, to the Cozzas and Dave Rice, to Wahls and the other Scouts for Equality, to the final push by Tessier, it was largely America’s Boy Scouts who forced the Boy Scouts of America to change.

Scouting for all?

The 2015 policy change did not explicitly address the question of gender identity. So when, in December 2016, a New Jersey Cub Scout pack kicked out 8 year old Joe Maldonado because he was assigned female at birth, another bruising fight seemed quite possible.

BSA Chief Scout Executive Michael Surbaugh
BSA Chief Scout Executive Michael Surbaugh announces the new gender identity policy in January 2017 CREDIT: BSA video screenshot

But just weeks after Joe’s family filed a civil rights complaint, the national BSA leadership made history again. In January 2017, Chief Scout Executive Michael Surbaugh announced that the organization, which for more than a century followed birth certificates only, would accept boys “based on the gender identity indicated on the application.” Maldonado received an apology, a financial settlement, and an invitation to rejoin the program — which he happily accepted.

While other religious conservatives denounced the move as “crazy,” the LDS church’s response was merely that it was “studying” the decision and that it continued to “look for ways to better serve its families and young people worldwide.”

Another announcement came on May 4.

“Boy Scout Leaders to Discuss Offering More Opportunities for Girls,” read an NBC News headline. The article noted that the national leadership was considering how to open the program more up to families and cited an official as calling the gathering a chance to hear from the community about whether to create more places for girls to participate in Boy Scouting (while Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts are boys only, some of the organizations’ other programs like Venturing and Exploring already are coeducation).

The BSA National Commissioner explained at last month’s national jamboree that the organization’s leaders are listening to local councils about how best to proceed. “We want to do the right thing for Scouting… I don’t want to get 20 years down the road and have our great grandchildren say, ‘What was grandpap thinking about?’”

I’m a happy camper.

Insiders say this could ultimately mean girls could become Eagle Scouts. That would be a “very smart move” and “a good thing for the organization,” said Harrison. “I think this is a wonderful wonderful opportunity for the program we know so valuable to include a lot more kids, male and female. I’m a happy camper.”

But not everyone is so happy with the current BSA program.

You can go your own way

One week after the news broke that BSA might soon allow women to join — a move that could hugely grow the number of youth served by BSA, the organization learned that it would be losing a large number of its members.

LDS Church President and BSA national executive board member Thomas S. Monson, in April 2017. CREDIT: AP Photo/Rick Bowmer
LDS Church President and BSA national executive board member Thomas S. Monson, in April 2017. CREDIT: AP Photo/Rick Bowmer

In a letter signed by LDS President Monson, the church announced it had decided to scale back its affiliation with the Boy Scouts of America.

“As part of the church’s ongoing effort to evaluate and improve its service to families and young people worldwide, the church will no longer charter Varsity or Venturing units [the programs that served LDS teens aged 14 to 18] with the Boy Scouts of America and Scouts Canada effective January 1, 2018,” it read. Rather than automatically enroll the more than 130,000 teenage Mormon boys in the program, the LDS church will instead switch to its own program of “activities that balance spiritual, social, physical and intellectual development goals for young men.” The Cub Scout and Boy Scout program, they announced, would continue to be the official program for young men aged 8 to 13 — at least for now.

Did the BSA’s newfound inclusivity help cause the departure? And is this the first step toward the LDS church ending its partnership with BSA altogether?

Q&A document posted on the LDS news website posted the first question, but did not really answer it:

The BSA has always allowed the church to operate its programs in ways that are consistent with our standards and beliefs, and they have been very supportive. This change is to address the needs of young men ages 14 to 18. The Church is always evaluating what is best for our youth and families, and will continue to do so.

Hawkins told ThinkProgress the LGBTQ policies changes “were not the reason for May’s change,” citing the decision to “remain engaged” in the programs for younger boys. He added that the determination “was made well in advance of the BSA sharing any news about considering including girls and young women.” Asked whether the church planned to continue its remaining partnership, he was non-committal: “For now, the Church will remain with the Cub Scout and Boy Scout programs. However… the Church continues to work toward developing a program for young men and young women globally.”

Jana Riess, a senior columnist for Religion News Service and author of the forthcoming book The Next Mormons: The Rising Generation of Latter-day Saints, said in an email that much of the reason for the church’s decision has to do with demographics. She noted that “more young adults are leaving the LDS church. Mormon Millennials demonstrate on a smaller scale what is happening with organized religion more generally in America: that religious institutions have less of a hold on young adults than in generations past.” Bringing youth organizations directly under the church’s control, she suggested, was likely “part of the larger effort to retain more of the youth who grow up in the church but may be tempted to drift away.”

Henderson State University’s Bowman predicts that the move is “the first step toward broader disassociation,” and believes the demographics are a key factor. “For over 20 years now, the church has been majority non-American, that’s getting more so,” he said. “Disassociation with the Boy Scouts of America reflects that as much as anything else — the church wants to have its own program in place and increasingly BSA as less and less useful in a global organization.”

While he believes the Boy Scouts’ evolution on “social issues” may have hastened the church’s decision, Bowman has heard rumblings about such a move for “at least the past 10 to 20 years.” “Certainly that decision [to allow transgender boys] shows the BSA has planted itself firmly in one camp. But even if they’d not made that decision, I think this would have happened anyway.”

Max Perry Mueller, a historian of American religion at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and an expert on the history of the Mormons, also predicted that this was the first step in a complete break. “That incongruity on issues of gender conformity certainly is a problem for the Mormons. I don’t really think it’s that complicated.”

Claremont Graduate University’s Mason thinks that it is likely the Boy Scouts of America’s leadership knew this LDS re-evaluation was coming before its recent announcements on membership standards. “The [Church of Jesus Christ of] Latter-Day Saints was the single largest sponsor of Boy Scout troops in the U.S. and is very well placed in the board, a relationship that has gone on decades. I have no doubt they had high level conversations about these things and that both sides were quite open.”

So despite — or perhaps because of — the fact that they stood to lose an enormous part of their membership and revenue, the leadership of the Boy Scouts of America since 2013 had taken one step after the next to shed the organization’s image as a conservative and out of touch bastion of discrimination and exclusion.

David C. Scott, author of multiple books about the Boy Scouts of America, predicts that by widening their net, the Boy Scouting program will more than make up for any loss caused by the LDS church scaling back its participation. “If BSA doesn’t change with the times, it will be killed very quickly with the vote of the feet,” he said.

Some of the damage has been done. Tim Curran has never received an apology for the anti-gay discrimination he endured as the BSA fought for decades to keep him out. Yasmine Cassini refused to settle with the Denver council until the policy was changed — but by then, the job had been filled and she moved on to a career in education.

Steven Cozza, who has not been part of the organization since his childhood, hopes its ban on non-theists will also be eliminated soon. “It’s crazy they haven’t,” he lamented.

But last year, at age 87, Dave Rice received a letter from the Boy Scouts of America national headquarters informing him that he had been accepted and registered as a “professional scouter-retired.” After 18 years, he had been accepted back into scouting. He contacted his old troop, volunteered to be an assistant Scoutmaster. “I’m looking forward this fall to getting my 60 year pin,” he beamed.

Full disclosure: Josh Israel is a former member of the Boy Scouts of America, Scouting for All, and Scouts for Equality.