A year ago, the Boy Scouts of America ended its ban on openly gay leaders despite opposition from the Catholic hierarchy and other religious figures. Reports now reveal a Boy Scouts organization that has not been harmed, but, indeed strengthened by the decision. These benefits, however, have been more limited in Catholic contexts.
The Boy Scouts of America’s (BSA) National Executive Board overturned the ban last August, a follow-up to its 2013 decision allowing openly gay Scouts. In the proceeding months, the Albuquerque Journal reported:
“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.”
Outgoing BSA president, Robert Gates, even hoped in a May speech that there would be “positive national growth for the first time in decades.” But one area where Scout numbers have not grown is Catholic-affiliated groups, which have seen a decreased membership since the decision.
As for whether or not openly gay leaders, volunteers, and employees are joining up or coming out, there are not reliable statistics. And there are no numbers on whether and, if so, how many openly gay leaders have been rejected by religiously-affiliated councils, who are allowed to do so because of a religious exemption. But a number of Catholic officials have repeatedly given the impression that gay leaders are not welcome.
Bishop Robert Guglielmone of Charleston, South Carolina, who heads the National Catholic Committee on Scouting, said the BSA “has been wonderfully supportive” of church-affiliated councils and that 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.”
Last year, Catholic officials criticized the BSA decision publicly, and Bishop David Kagan of Bismarck even disaffiliated the entire diocese from the organization. But, by Guglielmone’s own count, only about 20 Catholic parishes across the U.S. have withdrawn their support of BSA troops.
There is one reported instance where a gay man was rejected from leading a BSA troop. Greg Bourke, initially ejected as a scoutmaster in 2012, reapplied after the ban had been lifted but was again turned down by Louisville’s Archbishop Joseph Kurtz. Bourke, who along with his husband Michael were among the plaintiffs in the U.S. Supreme Court’s Obergefell case which led to national marriage equality in the U.S. The couple was named “Persons of the Year” in 2015 by the National Catholic Reporter for their role in the court case. The couple also help lead Catholics for Fairness in Kentucky. Most recently, they challenged a Catholic cemetery which rejected their tombstone design.
Other religious traditions, including the Mormons, Baptists and some mainline Protestant churches, had warned against the BSA decision, too. But the Journal said, a year out, most churches have chosen to remain affiliated with the BSA, some exercising their religious exemption to continue excluding gay leaders.
Catholic leaders should pay attention to this new reality. After much hand wringing from religious leaders about allowing openly gay members and leaders into the Boy Scouts, none of their fears (often premised on false information) have come true. In fact, the opposite has happened. By becoming more inclusive, the Boy Scouts have become stronger and more capable of enacting their mission. This development has been attractive to many youth, their families, and returning BSA supporters who had withdrawn from the organization because of discriminatory policies.
The principled decision to overturn bans on LGBT people in Scouting has also been the practical one. And Scouting now offers something to the Catholic Church: there are clear parallels for how LGBT issues could impact the rest of parish life, if only church leaders would allow themselves to see new horizons.
–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry