NEW YORK (AP) — The Boy Scouts of America's proposed move away from its no-gays membership policy has outraged some longtime admirers, gratified many critics and raised intriguing questions about the iconic organization's future.
Will the Scouts now be split between troops with gay-friendly policies and those that keep the ban? What will a National Jamboree be like if it brings together these disparate groups with conflicting ideologies? Will the churches long devoted to scouting now be torn by internal debate over the choices that may lie ahead?
A top official of the Southern Baptist Convention, whose conservative churches sponsor hundreds of Scout units that embrace the ban, was among those alarmed that the BSA is proposing to allow sponsoring organizations to decide for themselves whether to admit gays as scouts and adult leaders.
"We understand that we are now a minority, that it is not popular to have biblical values, not popular to take stands that seem intolerant," said Frank Page, president of the SBC's executive committee. "This is going to lead to a disintegration of faith-based values."
Page had been scheduled to speak in July at the Scouts' National Jamboree in West Virginia, and he's now apprehensive there could be conflict as troops with differing policies converge. Asked if he might decide not to speak, Page said he would pray about it.
Of the more than 110,000 scouting units across the U.S., nearly 70 percent are chartered by religious organizations. Some were pleased by the proposed change, others were troubled.
Triggering the angst was the Boy Scouts' announcement Monday that it was considering replacing its long-standing ban on gays with a policy that would let troop sponsors make their own decisions. The change is expected to be discussed next week at a meeting of the BSA's national executive board.
The ban on gays, which the U.S. Supreme Court upheld as constitutional in 2000, has provoked a multitude of protest campaigns over the years. Numerous Scout councils and Scout leaders have expressed disagreement with the policy, and some corporate donors last year said they were suspending gifts to the BSA until the policy changed.
One of these companies, New Jersey-based drug-maker Merck & Co., said Tuesday it was pleased the BSA was reconsidering its position, but declined further comment.
Another form of protest involved Eagle Scouts who returned their medals and badges to Boy Scout headquarters. Among them was Nate May, a 25-year-old musician from Huntington, W.Va., who depicted the Scouts' new proposal as "a step in the right direction."
Later this year, more than 40,000 Scouts from across the country are expected to participate in the annual National Jamboree at a 10,600-acre site being built in southern West Virginia.
If the new policy is in place by then, May said, there could be some teasing and hurt feelings as gays make their public debut at the Jamboree. But overall, he predicted a positive experience.
"It would potentially open up some really interesting dialogues," May said. "I think it will probably show troops that continue to have the ban that a troop can exist in harmony, even with gays in it."
In Philadelphia, scoutmaster Ann Perrone said she's spent the past 13 years fighting the ban by writing letters, speaking out and wearing gay-rights rainbow symbols.
"I've done everything I can think of to make a local difference," Perrone said. "I'm really thrilled."
Perrone, an African-American, said she benefited from white support for the civil rights movement and now, as a straight woman, sees a chance to help expand the rights of gays and lesbians.
She said the proposed change could prompt some churches to cut ties with Scouting, but suggested other congregations will step up to fill the gaps.
"This is something that will probably flare up and, if handled properly, will be allowed to die down," Perrone said.
The no-gays policy has fueled a protracted legal fight in Philadelphia. The Scouts' Cradle of Liberty Council has used a city-owned building rent-free for decades, and officials have been trying to evict them because the ban violates a local anti-discrimination law. A federal jury ruled in favor of the Scouts, but the city has appealed.
In North Carolina, news of the possible policy change was welcomed — cautiously — by Matt Comer of Charlotte, who said he was forced out of his Boy Scout troop at the age of 14 after troop leaders confronted him over being gay.
"It was very intimidating," said Comer, now 26. "The scoutmaster said, 'If you choose to live that lifestyle, you choose not to be a Boy Scout.'"
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