As Eagle Scouts return medals, gay ban still firm

NEW YORK – For the physician in Illinois, the attorney in Kentucky, the arts editor in Oregon, their Eagle Scout medals were treasured reminders of youthful achievement. Yet each is parting with his medal out of dismay over the Boy Scouts’ recently reaffirmed policy of excluding gays.

"I can no longer maintain any connection to an organization which actively promotes such a bigoted and misguided policy," Dr. Robert Wise of Chicago wrote to Scout headquarters in Texas. "To that end, I am interested in removing all evidence that I was ever a Scout."

Wise, 59, is among several dozen former Eagle Scouts who have taken such steps following the July 17 announcement that the Boy Scouts of America, after a confidential two-year review, were sticking with the divisive, long-standing policy of excluding openly gay youth and adults as members and leaders.

Another of the protesters is attorney Jackson Cooper, 32, a former senior patrol leader of Troop 342 in his hometown of Louisville, Ky. In an open letter, he said he was unsure if any of his fellow Scouts were gay.

"But I do know that my now deceased mother, a lesbian, would not have been allowed to serve as a den mother if her orientation had been public knowledge," he wrote. "The thought that I have invested such a large part of my life with an organization that would have turned my own mother away breaks my heart."

Also returning his medal was Martin Cizmar, 31, arts and culture editor of Willamette Week, an alternative newspaper in Portland, Ore.

He tweeted the news: "Just mailed my Eagle Scout medal back to the BSA to protest the ban on gay scouts. Kinda sad, but important."

In a letter sent to BSA headquarters along with the medal, Cizmar detailed his scouting career with a troop in Tallmadge, Ohio.

"Though I did not know at the time, I was acquainted with a number of gay Scouts and Scouters (adult leaders)," he wrote. "They were all great men, loyal to the Scout Oath and motto and helpful to the movement. There is no fair reason they should not be allowed to participate in scouting."

Deron Smith, the Boy Scouts’ national spokesman, said there was no official count at his office of how many medals had been returned. He also noted that about 50,000 of the medals are awarded each year.

"We’re naturally disappointed when someone decides to return a medal because of this single policy," he said. "We respect their right to express their opinion."

Beyond the Eagle Scout protests, the Boy Scouts’ reaffirmation of the no-gays policy has drawn condemnation from liberal advocacy groups, newspaper editorialists and others. In Washington state, Republican gubernatorial candidate Rob McKenna, an Eagle Scout, joined his Democratic opponent, Jay Inslee, in suggesting the policy be changed.

But overall there has been little evidence of any new form of outside pressure that might prompt the Scouts to reconsider.

The leadership of the Scouts’ most influential religious partners – notably the Mormons, Roman Catholics and Southern Baptists – appears to support the policy. And even liberal politicians seem reluctant to press the issue amid a tense national election campaign.

For example, President Barack Obama has made no public statement thus far about the Scouts’ policy – a notable void given that he is a staunch supporter of gay rights and also, like all presidents of the past 100 years, is the Boy Scouts’ honorary president.

The American Civil Liberties Union, in its online newsletter, suggested that Obama re-evaluate White House ties to the Boy Scouts. The White House press office declined comment on the matter, and there has been little pressure on Obama from other quarters.

"People are reluctant to force him to take sides," said Richard Socarides, a former Clinton White House adviser on gay rights. "Everybody knows what side he’s on anyway."

Rep. Barney Frank, an openly gay Democrat from Massachusetts, said Obama already had burnished his gay-rights credentials by supporting same-sex marriage and there were "bigger fish to fry" at this juncture.

In contrast to Obama, Republican candidate Mitt Romney does have a public position on the Scouts’ policy – he politely disagrees with it.

Back in 1994, during a political debate in Massachusetts, Romney said this: "I support the right of the Boy Scouts of America to decide what it wants to do on that issue. I feel that all people should be able to participate in the Boy Scouts regardless of their sexual orientation."

A Romney spokeswoman, Andrea Saul, said in an e-mail that this remains Romney’s position today.

Beyond the political arena, the Boy Scouts’ stance was bemoaned in various newspaper editorials, ranging from The New York Times to the Iowa City Press-Citizen to the Salina Journal in Kansas.

"The Scouts do matter. They do a lot of good for a lot of families and boys," said the Journal’s editorial. "But their influence and relevance will wane if they continue to go against a society that’s becoming more inclusive, not exclusive."

Some critics of the ban say it endures because religious organizations sponsor about 70 percent of the Boy Scouts’ units nationwide – and these church groups generally support the membership policy.

According to the latest BSA figures, the Mormons’ Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints charters more than 37,000 Boy Scout and Cub Scout troops with a youth membership of more than 420,000, the highest figures of any denomination. Roman Catholic parishes charter about 8,500 units with about 283,000 members.

The Scouts have about 2.7 million youth members in all.

Chip Turner, a Southern Baptist who chairs the Scouts’ religious relationships committee, said the no-gays policy is unlikely to change as long as it has the support of the churches most active in sponsoring Scout units.

The Southern Baptist Convention, back in 1992, adopted a resolution saying it stood in solidarity with the Boy Scouts in confronting a "sustained attack because of its refusal to allow homosexuals as Scout leaders."

Eric Hawkins, a spokesman at Mormon headquarters in Utah, said his church and the Scouts share of a goal of seeking to teach young men "essential values of character, faith and service, including those outlined in the Scout Oath and Scout Law."

"We have a nearly 100-year relationship with the Boy Scouts of America, and look forward to continuing that relationship far into the future," he said.

Among the mainline Protestant denominations that sponsor large numbers of Scout units – the United Methodist Church, the Episcopal Church and others – the picture is less clear.

Gilbert Hanke, general secretary of the General Commission on United Methodist Men, said the Scouts’ membership policy would be discussed soon by a scouting ministry committee and might be an agenda item at a board meeting this fall. The United Methodists sponsor more than 11,000 Scout units with about 370,000 youth members.

The Episcopal Church – which ordains openly gay people as priests – has no churchwide position on the Scouts’ policy and leaves it to individual congregations to decide if they want to sponsor a Scout unit. More than 1,100 Episcopal churches do so.

At St. Aidan’s Episcopal Church in Alexandria, Va., the associate rector, Rev. Elizabeth Rees, said news of the Boy Scouts’ reaffirmation of their policy made her embarrassed by the sign outside her church for the local Scout troop that meets there.

"We have a sign on our property that says, ‘We welcome you,’ and we have the sign for the Boy Scouts," she said. "The signs seem to be theologically opposed."

Rees says she admires the local troop, but wishes that churches supporting the Scouts could find ways to help change the membership policy.

The liberal United Church of Christ, sponsor of about 1,200 units serving more than 38,000 Scouts, is one of the few large denominations with a formal position condemning the membership policy and urging its elimination.

The effect of the policy, says the 2003 UCC resolution, is to make gays "feel diminished, invisible, and marginalized."

However, the resolution makes clear that individual UCC congregations can decide for themselves whether to cut ties with the Scouts or remain as unit sponsors.

"It’s been difficult to engage with the Scouts and have a conversation," said Rev. Michael Schuenemeyer, the UCC’s executive for health and wholeness advocacy. "We don’t understand why they feel they need to be discriminatory."

Eagle Scout Zach Wahls, a 21-year-old activist raised by lesbian mothers in Iowa, has become a leader of the campaign against the membership policy, though he says he doesn’t plan to return his own Eagle Scout medal. He believes the best chance for change lies with local Scout councils, some of which have signaled their commitment to an inclusive approach that would accommodate gays.

Deron Smith, the Scout spokesman, said instances of outright defiance of the policy by local units are "very rare."

"Any time we become aware of inconsistencies, we’ll work with the local council and reiterate the policy and make sure it’s in compliance," he said. "We have one policy."

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