There were dire warnings for the Boy Scouts of America a year ago when the group’s leaders, under intense pressure, voted to end a long-standing blanket ban on participation by openly gay adults. Several of the biggest sponsors of Scout units, including the Roman Catholic, Mormon and Southern Baptist churches, were openly dismayed, raising the prospect of mass defections.
Remarkably, nearly 12 months after the BSA National Executive Board’s decision, the Boy Scouts seem more robust than they have in many years. Youth membership is on the verge of stabilizing after a prolonged decline, corporations which halted donations because of the ban have resumed their support, and the vast majority of units affiliated with conservative religious denominations have remained in the fold — still free to exclude gay adults if that’s in accordance with their religious doctrine.
Catholic Bishop Robert Guglielmone of Charleston, South Carolina, whose duties include liaising with the National Catholic Committee on Scouting, says he knows of no instances where a Catholic unit — there are more than 7,500 — has taken on an openly gay adult leader since the policy change. Gay sex and same-sex marriage are considered violations of church teaching.
The Boy Scouts’ national leadership “has been wonderfully supportive,” Guglielmone said.
Leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S., were unhappy with the BSA’s easing of the ban on gay adults, but did not call on individual churches to disaffiliate with troops that they sponsored.
A year later, the number of Southern Baptist churches that did cut ties with Scouting is “in the double digits,” far outnumbered by those who continued their sponsorships, according to Ted S. Spangenberg Jr., president of the executive board of the Association of Baptists for Scouting.
“A few of the churches that left are starting to trickle back as the knee-jerk reaction is over,” Spangenberg said. “We kind of like the way it looks — if you’re faith-based, it’s within your right to select the adult leaders who are going to uphold the tenets of your faith.”
Spangenberg spoke by phone from a Boy Scout camp in Defuniak Springs, Florida, where he was serving as chaplain and all-terrain vehicle instructor.
Another leader pleased with the developments is Richard Mason, president of the BSA’s Greater New York Councils, which serves nearly 50,000 youths in the New York City area.
In April 2015, the NY Councils played a key role in the BSA policy change, defying the ban by announcing the hiring of an 18-year-old gay Eagle Scout to work at one of its summer camps. Soon afterward, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s office opened an inquiry into the BSA’s membership policies and influence over local councils’ hiring decisions.
Mason said the aftermath of the policy change has been overwhelmingly positive in New York. Some corporations and liberal religious groups that cut ties with the Scouts because of the ban have restored them, he said, while the Catholic archdiocese — initially wary of the change — has remained fully active with scouting.
The changes in BSA policy toward gay youths and adult leaders were “handled as professionally as I have seen any contentious issue handled during my career,” said Mason, a lawyer experienced with complex bankruptcy proceedings.
Until last year, the Boy Scouts had explicitly adhered to a ban on gay adults for more than three decades, even taking a case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2000, when it won a 5-4 decision upholding its right to have exclusionary membership policies.
That ruling fueled protests against the BSA by gay-rights supporters. Some local governments barred the Scouts from using public schools or other municipal property. The 2012 ouster of a lesbian serving as a Cub Scout den mother in Ohio sparked a national petition campaign assailing the ban.
After vigorous internal debate, the BSA leadership decided in 2013 to allow participation by openly gay youth. However, the organization faced continued pressure to ease its ban on gay adults serving as paid staff or volunteers.
Some major Scout councils made clear they would defy the ban, and BSA headquarters became increasingly worried that it could face lawsuits from states that prohibit workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation.
At the urging of Robert Gates, the former defense secretary who was BSA president at the time, the Scouts’ National Executive Board voted on July 27, 2015, to end the blanket ban on gay adult leaders while allowing church-sponsored units to maintain the exclusion for religious reasons.
About 73 percent of all Scout units are sponsored by churches, some of them open to participation by gay adults.
The plaintiff in the Supreme Court case, James Dale, had been expelled from his position as an assistant Scoutmaster in New Jersey because he was gay. The New Jersey Supreme Court said his firing violated the state’s nondiscrimination law, but the Boy Scouts prevailed in their appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Dale, now 45, is pleased that the BSA eased the ban but disapproves of the provision allowing church-sponsored troops to continue excluding gays.
“With the Boy Scouts, I want to be optimistic,” Dale said. “What they’ve done is more than a half measure, but it’s not where it needs to be.”
Like several other major youth organizations, the Boy Scouts have experienced a membership decline in recent decades. Current youth participation, according to the BSA, is about 2.35 million, down from 2.6 million in 2013 and more than 4 million in peak years of the past.
However, Gates, in a speech in May before stepping down as BSA president, said there were encouraging trends, with the overall rate of decline slowing and an increase in the number of boys joining Cub Scouts.
“We are on the threshold of a significant historical event — a return to positive national growth for the first time in decades,” Gates said.
There are no official statistics on how many gay adults have been accepted as BSA leaders.
“We do not inquire about the sexual orientation of our youth members, adult volunteers or employees,” said Boy Scouts national spokeswoman Effie Delimarkos.
Since the policy change, there have been few news reports of gay adults being rebuffed after trying to become BSA volunteers. One of the few such cases to receive coverage involved Greg Bourke of Louisville, Kentucky.
Bourke had served as an assistant scoutmaster for a troop sponsored by a Catholic church but resigned under pressure in 2012 because of the ban. After it was lifted, he applied for reinstatement, but was rejected at a face-to-face meeting with Archbishop Joseph Kurtz.
Bourke and his husband, Michael DeLeon, were plaintiffs in the case that resulted in the U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down state bans on same-sex marriage. The Louisville archdiocese indicated it was Bourke’s marital status, as well as his activism, that led to the rebuff of his application.
“Boy Scout troops are ministries of the parishes in which they reside,” the archdiocese said. “All pastoral leaders in these ministries should be able to provide a credible and integrated witness in their lives to the teachings of the Catholic Church, including its teachings on marriage.”
Though the policy change did not trigger the massive defections that some critics predicted, there were some emphatic departures.
The Catholic bishop of Bismarck, North Dakota, David Kagan, announced within a week of the BSA decision that his diocese would end its affiliation. In addition, about 20 individual Catholic parishes around the country dropped their sponsorship of Scout troops, according to Guglielmone.
He said the number of youths participating in Catholic units had dropped slightly over the past year, but predicted the numbers would rise as more Catholics saw that the Scouts’ policy change had not caused disruptions.
In Appleton, Wisconsin, Faith Lutheran Church severed its ties with Boy Scout and Cub Scout units it had sponsored for 60 years. Pastor Dan Thews said he could not accept the idea of gay adults having influence over boys in the unit.
However, Delimarkos said new sponsors will assume oversight of both units. In several cases elsewhere, she said, organizations such as the United Methodist Church and the American Legion took over units which lost their sponsors.
“We are very encouraged by what looks like a minimal negative effect the policy change has had,” Delimarkos said in an email.
In Utah, where most troops are sponsored by Mormon churches, the change appears to have had modest impact.
The Mormon Church sponsors more Scout units that any other organization in the U.S. and has used Scouting programs as a rite of passage for boys. Initially, the church said it was “deeply troubled” by the policy change but later committed to sticking with the Boy Scouts.
That period of indecision may have contributed to a drop in fundraising for the largest Boy Scout council in the country, the Utah National Parks Council, which had to lay off several staff members.
The council president, Stan Lockhart, said there has been little conversation about the policy change among parents and troops in the council, which has more than 83,000 youth participating.
The change opened the door for Scott K. Fausett to return to the organization he loved.
He grew up in Boy Scouts as a Mormon and was a troop leader until he came out as gay in 2008 and had to leave. He’s now the leader of an all-inclusive troop sponsored by the Presbyterian Church in Salt Lake City.
“We don’t care about somebody’s religious beliefs, their ability, their disability, their sexuality,” said Fausett, 46. “All we care about is that they live the Scout principles.”
A Utah LGBT-rights group, Restore Our Humanity, has filed an application to organize a new Boy Scout troop with a “fully inclusive policy.”
One of the groups that campaigned against the BSA’s bans on gay youths and adults — Scouts for Equality — is trying to build a national network of Scout units that publicly identify as welcoming gays. Zach Wahls, a co-founder of Scouts for Equality, said this program is now active in 31 states, with participation by more than 4,800 youths and 2,300 adults.
“We still have a ways to go,” said Wahls, 24, an Eagle Scout who was raised by lesbian mothers in Iowa.
One issue likely to confront the BSA in the future, Wahls said, is how to handle efforts by transgender boys to join Scout units.
A Girl Scout troop in Colorado accepted a transgender girl in 2011, but for now the Boy Scouts are not ready to follow suit.
Delimarkos said transgender youths would be welcome in coed programs, such as Venturing, but not in boys-only Cub Scout and Boy Scout units.