The Boston Phoenix
September 14 - 21, 2000


Holy war, continued

by Patrick Boyle

Sixty-five percent of all Scout units are sponsored by religious organizations, according to the BSA. And Mike Montalvo, a Dallas researcher who has examined the Boy Scouts, says 55 percent of all Boy Scouts come from religious organizations. The rest of the Scout units are sponsored by government organizations (such as police departments), educational associations (such as schools), and civic organizations (such as Lions Clubs).

Banned in Boston

Local boy scout councils have been feeling the heat since the US Supreme Court's June ruling upheld the organization's right to ban gay members and leaders. Two weeks ago, Framingham Public Schools superintendent Mark Smith announced that he was revoking permission for the Boy Scouts to recruit or distribute literature on school grounds because their anti-gay policy went against the district's stated mandate to "respect human differences." The board of the United Way of Greater Fall River unanimously decided to require grant recipients to sign a non-discrimination pledge -- which includes a prohibition against sexual-orientation discrimination -- next April, or else forfeit their allocations. If the area's Moby Dick Boy Scouts Council doesn't sign on, it stands to lose nearly $50,000 annually. On August 1, the United Way of Massachusetts Bay -- the largest of 30 United Way organizations in the state -- cut funding to five local Boy Scout councils. The organization, which donated $288,000 to Scouts in the last fiscal year, will instead redirect up to $240,000 toward a spin-off character-building organization called Learning for Life that proscribes discrimination against gays and lesbians. And the United Ways of Merrimack Valley and Central Massachusetts, whose non-discrimination policies do not currently include sexual orientation, are set to re-evaluate their policies this fall. If they decide not to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, that could affect their support of local Scout troops.

Brock Bigsby, executive of the Boston-based Minuteman Council, says that donations from the United Way of Massachusetts Bay make up 10 percent of the council's operating budget. "We hope we won't have to cut [programs], that we can get funding from other sources," he says, "but that remains to be seen." Bigsby says the Minuteman Council complies with the national policy barring openly gay members, but that the national policy is "misunderstood."

"We do not select and appoint Scout leaders," he says. "Scout leaders are selected by the parents of kids in the program -- they pick who they want to be Scout leader. Those decisions are approved by the chartered organization, which in most cases is a school group or community group. We rely on their judgment. Nowhere in this process do we inquire about people's sexual orientation, and frankly it's not an issue."

But the mere existence of the ban -- even if local councils look the other way, or practice military-style "don't ask, don't tell" -- is troubling enough to make major corporations, such as the Rhode Island-based drugstore chain CVS, halt their tradition of making an annual donation to the Scouts. Entire religious denominations, notably the Boston-based Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), are at war with the Scouts over the policy. As a result of the Unitarians' position, the church was stripped of the right to grant its Religion in Life awards to Unitarian Scouts, a practice common in other denominations (Scouts troops sponsored by Baptist churches, for instance, can work for a God and Country badge). According to John Hurley, UUA director of information, the church is practicing civil disobedience of sorts: "We continue to mail out the Religion in Life packet [which contains an addendum voicing opposition to the BSA's position on gays], UU Scouts continue to work for the award, and churches continue to award it. But in the wake of the Supreme Court case, I've heard from many, many, many UU families who are grappling with the problem of whether or not to stay with the Scouts."

Others are soul-searching as well. Scott Pusillo, a former Eagle Scout who was kicked out of the organization last April after officials discovered he is gay, is the Northeast regional director of Scouting for All, an advocacy group opposing the ban. A 15-year veteran of Scouting, he is in the ironic position of applauding recent efforts by the United Way and other organizations to defund it. "Every goal I've achieved in my life can somehow be attributed to the Scouting program," he says. "I don't want to see that destroyed, because there are millions of youth who can benefit from it. The only problem is [they're] excluding a large portion of potential members and leaders because of discriminatory practices. Scouting has given me 15 years of my life, and I want to give back to it, try to make it better."

Paul Mina, chairman of the Council of Massachusetts United Ways, reports that 11 out of 1400 United Ways nationwide -- mostly in New England and California -- have chosen to cut funding to the Boy Scouts. "Most United Ways don't take sides on this issue," he reports. "Our job is to raise as much money as we can to help as many people as we can. My view is, we can't do that if we're taking sides." But referring to the United Ways that have terminated funding, he concedes that "perhaps for their communities it was the right decision."

The United Way of Massachusetts Bay, which has itself banned sexual-orientation discrimination for the past 10 years, is convinced that its decision to defund the Boy Scouts in favor of Learning for Life was the right one. Says chief operating officer Patricia Brandes, "The reason this is complicated is because so many young children are served through the Boy Scouts program. Our mission is to serve children and families, especially those in need. . . . We felt this was a way to keep helping the children and still maintain our commitment to non-discrimination." The resulting phone calls and e-mail have been mostly negative, but she still feels the organization's move was in sync with local mores: "Our decision upholds a value that is a community standard in the Greater Boston area -- non-discrimination against various groups of people."

-- Dorie Clark

Regardless of the precise numbers, religious-organization influence on Scouting cannot be overstated. Officials from various denominations -- including Mormon, Catholic, Methodist, Lutheran, and Presbyterian -- sit on the BSA executive board and its advisory council. Most of the churches have organizations dedicated to Scouting, such as the Lutheran Association for Scouters, formed to "encourage Lutheran congregations to use the programs and resources of the Boy Scouts of America as a means of extending their ministry to children, youth, and families." The BSA has a Religious Relations Subcommittee. And the BSA has sanctioned badges for churches to award their Scouts for accomplishments tied to religious education: the God and Country badge for Baptists, for instance, and the Religion in Life badge for Unitarians.

These denominations hold a variety of positions on homosexuality, but two of the biggest sponsors -- the Mormon and Catholic churches -- condemn homosexual behavior as sinful. The leadership at BSA, Inc., in Irving, Texas, shares that view and has taken it a step further by saying that gay men should not be working closely with boys. For years, no one questioned this wisdom.

And then Tim Curran took a boy to the prom.

Right from the beginning the BSA, just like the Scout Association in England, found that its troops sometimes attracted men who should not be around boys. By 1911, one year after its incorporation, the BSA developed a "Red Flag" list of adults who had been kicked out of Scouting for not meeting the organization's "standards of leadership." People were banned for a variety of sins, such as criminal convictions, public drunkenness, and stealing funds from troops. Over the decades, the biggest single reason for being banned from Scouting was child molesting.

To the BSA, it seemed logical that preventing gay men from becoming Scout leaders was a way of preventing those men from having sex with the Scouts. And the churches weren't the only ones to back the BSA on this: it is clear that most Scout parents, even those who profess a "live and let live" philosophy toward gays, feel uncomfortable with the idea of having their sons led by gay men. Combine that misdirected fear with the fact that a number of families sued the BSA in the 1970s and 1980s for sexual abuse by Scout leaders -- costing tens of millions in lawyers' fees and settlements -- and you have strong support for a ban on gay leaders. (The BSA has subsequently acknowledged in its literature that gay men are no more likely to abuse children than are heterosexual men.)

But even gay youth were not welcome: a Scoutmaster's handbook from the early 1970s discussed sexual experimentation among boys in troops, warning against "the practices of a confirmed homosexual who may be using his Scouting association to make contacts."

Tim Curran says he never used the Scouts for that, but he is gay -- as his Scout council in California found out in 1980, when a newspaper ran a story about his taking a boy to his senior prom. The 18-year-old was booted from Scouting. When he applied to be an adult volunteer the next year, he was rejected.

Curran sued the BSA for discrimination and lost. The California courts ruled this summer that the BSA has a right of association, which means that it can choose its own leaders. But Scouting's homosexual ban was out of the closet -- and at a time when society is becoming more accepting of gay men and lesbians, the ban has become a flash point in the culture wars. Foes call the ban ignorant and bigoted; supporters see the BSA as standing up for bedrock moral values.

It was not until Dale v. Boy Scouts of America reached the US Supreme Court in 1999 that the BSA really articulated its reasoning to the public. As in the Curran case, the trouble began with a newspaper story: assistant Scoutmaster James Dale had been quoted in an article about a seminar on the psychological and health needs of lesbian and gay teens, and he was identified as co-president of the Rutgers University Lesbian/Gay Alliance. Dale, who had been an Eagle Scout before becoming an assistant Scoutmaster, soon got a letter from the Monmouth Council of the BSA saying he was banned from Scouting. He sued.

The BSA subsequently issued a statement: "We believe that homosexual conduct is inconsistent with the requirement in the Scout Oath that a Scout be morally straight, and in the Scout Law that a Scout be clean in word and deed, and that homosexuals do not provide a desirable role model for Scouts."

The New Jersey Appellate Division didn't buy it, ruling last August that the BSA action violated the state's Law Against Discrimination (LAD). Most troubling for the BSA was that the court characterized Scouting as a "public accommodation" subject to the LAD, rather than as a private group that could exclude just about anyone as an exercise of freedom of association.

To add to the problem, the ban on gays was driving away money and sponsors.

The scouts have said many times that their policies are not for sale, and if it costs them sponsorships, so be it," BSA attorney George Davidson told the US Supreme Court last month.

And cost them it has (see "Banned in Boston," p. 21). Because of the publicity and the public debates over the issue throughout the '90s, some local United Ways -- in San Francisco and in Portland, Maine, for instance -- withdrew their funding, saying they could not contribute to an organization that discriminates based on sexual orientation. (In 1996 the United Way contributed about $86 million to Scouting.)

In the meantime, the people who really run Scouting -- the million-plus volunteers and the professionals in the local councils -- are far from unanimous on the issue. An executive committee meeting of the Baden-Powell Council in upstate New York in 1992 was typical: in asking the BSA to reconsider its homosexual ban, the council quoted one committee member as pointing out, "Scouting itself has taught many of us tolerance. Others are troubled by the thought of homosexual leaders."

Scout councils in San Jose, California; Narragansett, Rhode Island; and St. Paul, Minnesota (home of the first Catholic troop, in 1910) are among those that have also asked the BSA to reconsider its ban on gays, often citing fear of losing funding.

The Narragansett Council took the apparently unprecedented step last year of reinstating an openly homosexual employee. The 16-year-old Eagle Scout had been released from a summer job at Camp Yawgoog and kicked out of Scouting after camp officials asked whether rumors that he was gay were true. The boy said yes. After a public uproar, the council reinstated his Scouting membership and offered his job back, with an okay from BSA, saying it was Scout policy not to ask about employees' sexual orientation -- an action similar to suppressing evidence because the warrant was bad.

Homosexuality is a fault line in American culture, and that line runs through its churches: the religious organizations that sponsor more than half of all Scout units are by no means unified in their positions on homosexuality. The Unitarian Universalist Association, the United Church of Christ, and Reform Judaism are among those that fully accept homosexuality and have urged the Scouts to do the same. The Episcopal Church of the USA, the Presbyterian Church of the USA, and the United Methodist Church have all "acknowledged the presence of gays in their ranks" and are wrestling with the issue, according to an amicus brief filed by several deans of divinity schools and rabbinical institutions.

Some of these denominations have fought the BSA position. A Unitarian handbook published in the 1990s called BSA policies "homophobic." The United Church of Christ implored the BSA in 1993 to "stop its discriminatory practices" of prohibiting openly gay people in Scouting.

But those churches account for a small number of Scout units, and they're not threatening to pull out over the issue. Consider, however, the United Methodist Church (UMC), the BSA's leading youth sponsor, whose struggle over homosexuality mirrors the nation's.

Last September, the Commission of United Methodist Men of the UMC publicly backed the Scouts in their appeal of the Dale ruling in New Jersey. The next month, the UMC General Board of Church and Society took the opposite stand, saying that it "condemns discrimination based on sexual orientation."

The United Methodist Men is a commission that oversees the UMC's Scout program. The Church and Society board deals with UMC social policies. The two are of equal status in the UMC. So who wins? In May, the general conference of the UMC voted not to concur with either position.

Even the National Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement in 1997 urging parents of homosexual children not to break off relations with those children, but to "offer loving support." It said that gays "must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity."

Building the Boy Scouts

The following are the top 10 organizations that sponsor Scout units in terms of number of youth participants. Figures are from the BSA from 1998.

Organization Units Youth

United Methodist Church 11,738 421,579

Latter-day Saints (Mormon) 31,402 412,240

Public schools 10,113 362,989

Catholic churches 9635 354,568

Parent-teacher groups (not PTAs) 4002 186,821

Lutheran churches 4364 150,009

Presbyterian churches 3981 146,870

Baptist churches 4973 115,961

Lions International 3164 105,930

Parent-Teacher Associations 1965 98,870

The National Catholic Committee on Scouting and the Methodist Men joined the LDS in an amicus brief backing the Scout ban -- but neither Catholics nor Methodists said they'd withdraw if the Court struck that ban. The LDS Church, however, wrote that it "would withdraw from Scouting if it were compelled to accept openly homosexual Scout leaders."

Several people who have worked at high levels with the BSA believe the organization's strong (or stubborn) stand on gays reflects the muscle of the Mormons and conservative Catholics on BSA boards. But even though the BSA may be concerned about losing Mormon troops, few youth-serving organizations in the United States are in a better position to absorb a financial hit. In 1997, the last year for which BSA tax returns are available, the corporation reported a $56 million operating surplus.

Besides, one need only look to Canada to find evidence that if the BSA were to accept gays, churches would not drop out.

Churches sponsor "just under half" of the 3860 Scout "groups" in Canada, says Scouts Canada spokesman Andy McLaughlin. The Mormon Church accounts for seven percent (272), and the Catholic Church for almost five percent (190).

And last year, Scouts Canada accepted the creation of an all-gay troop. When Scouts Canada polled its sponsors for reaction, "we didn't hear any concerns," McLaughlin says. Scouts Canada has no position on gays' serving as leaders. Neither does the British Scout Association. Both say this causes no trouble with churches that sponsor units.

In the United States, Catholic churches sponsor some Girl Scout troops (the exact number is not available), even though the Girl Scouts do not ban lesbian leaders. It is unclear, however, whether church-sponsored units in these organizations would be forced to accept gays if they did not want to, which is the requirement under New Jersey's Dale decision.

So where does this leave the Scouts? Many observers, such as Mike Montalvo, believe the BSA will eventually leave the decision up to local sponsors. Whether that ever happens will probably depend on some of the same factors that forced the Scouts to pursue their anti-gay policy in the first place: the BSA's relationship with its religious sponsors.

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Patrick Boyle is the author of Scout's Honor: Sexual Abuse in America's Most Trusted Institution (Prima) and editor of Youth Today, where this article first appeared. Youth Today is a publication of the American Youth Work Center, 1200 17th Street NW, Washington, DC 20036. Call (800) 599-2455, e-mail, or visit for more information.