Boy Scouts leaders vote to allow gay members

The Boy Scouts of America’s National Council’s decision Thursday to allow gay members was met with mixed reaction in the Istrouma Area Council in Baton Rouge, with some leaders seeing the change as positive and others expecting drops in membership and financial support.

Eric Howell, chief executive officer of the Istrouma Area Council, attended a convention of about 1,400 council members in Grapevine, Texas.

The voting body passed a resolution to open the group’s ranks to gay Scouts — but not gay Scout leaders — with the changes scheduled to go into effect Jan. 1.

Howell said an independent company tabulated Thursday’s votes and about 61 percent of the members voted “yes” to pass the resolution, based on what he heard.

The four members of the Istrouma Area Council, which covers 13 parishes in Louisiana and one county in Mississippi, voted “no,” which Howell said was in line with the opinions of the stakeholders the group serves.

“The stakeholders had the opportunity to voice their opinion, and we were there to listen,” Howell said.

The Istrouma Area Council held several meetings with parents and Scouts in the past several months and Howell said the resounding tenor was that the stakeholders opposed the change.

Although the group voted against the policy change, Howell said, the group will abide by it.

“While people have different opinions about this policy, we can all agree that kids are better off when they are in Scouting,” the BSA said after announcing the results.

e_SDLqThe Boy Scouts of America will not sacrifice its mission, or the youth served by the movement, by allowing the organization to be consumed by a single, divisive, and unresolved societal issue.”

However, the outcome will not end the bitter debate over the Scouts’ membership policy.

Liberal Scout leaders — while supporting the proposal to accept gay youth — have made clear they want the ban on gay adults lifted as well.

In contrast, conservatives with the Scouts — including some churches that sponsor Scout units — wanted to continue excluding gay youths, in some cases threatening to defect if the ban were lifted.

“We are deeply saddened,” said Frank Page, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s executive committee after learning of the result. “Homosexual behavior is incompatible with the principles enshrined in the Scout oath and Scout law.”

Steve Beatty, troopmaster of Troop 478, which operates within the Istrouma Area Council, said the BSA executive committee’s initial proposal in January centered on allowing the local organizations sponsoring the troops, like churches and civic groups, to determine if homosexual members and leaders could join.

The initial plan won little praise, and the BSA changed course after assessing responses to surveys sent out starting in February to the Scouting community.

Of the more than 200,000 leaders, parents and youth members who responded, 61 percent supported the current policy of excluding gays, while 34 percent opposed it. However, most parents of young Scouts, as well as youth members themselves, opposed the ban.

“I know of at least one troop that said they will disband,” Beatty said, but declined to name the troop.

While Beatty said he personally opposes anything that causes fewer people to be involved in Scouting, which he thinks will happen with the new policy, he favors something opening the door to allow more people to be involved.

“I’m not opposed to the policy, I’m opposed to the result,” he said. “It’s not an issue that we as scouts should be dealing with.”

“For me, if it’s one Scout leaving, it’s noteworthy,” Beatty said. “To have one boy not have the benefit of the Scouting program is a loss.”

The BSA’s overall “traditional youth membership” — Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts and Venturers — is now about 2.6 million, compared with more than 4 million in peak years of the past. It also has about 1 million adult leaders and volunteers.

Jeff Wittenbrink, a leader in the Istrouma Area Council who has been involved with Scouting for 11 years, echoed Beatty’s statement that people will leave and has been vocal in his opposition to the change.

“You’re going to see a lot of Scout parents voting with their feet,” he said. “If you would ask the Scout parents to vote, it would have been a completely different thing.”

He said the National Council’s voting members know the ramifications of the vote and the subsequent changes, but they don’t care.

Cathie Louis, council advancement chairman and an Istrouma Area Council board member, said for years the Scouts instituted a culture of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” similar to the U.S. military’s old policy for gay servicemen and women and that there have been gay members in Scouting for years.

“My hope is that a lot of boys will be taken into other units if their church or troop dissolves because of this,” she said.

Of the more than 100,000 Scouting units in the United States, 70 percent are chartered by religious institutions.

Those include liberal churches opposed to any ban on gays, but some of the largest sponsors are relatively conservative denominations that have previously supported the broad ban — notably the Roman Catholic Church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Southern Baptist churches.

The BSA, which celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2010, has long excluded both gays and atheists.

Protests over the no-gays policy gained momentum in 2000, when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the BSA’s right to exclude gays. Scout units lost sponsorships by public schools and other entities that adhered to nondiscrimination policies, and several local Scout councils made public their displeasure with the policy.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.