PORTLAND – Austin Smith received his Eagle Scout medal in 1973, when he was 16 and living in Columbus, Miss. The award capped off a longtime commitment to the Boy Scouts and fulfilled a dream of his family.
His father, Lynn, had made it all the way to the Life Scout ranking, one step below the coveted Eagle Scout, but had to quit when he was 14 to take a job and help support his family.
“This award is really precious to me,” said Austin Smith, now a 54-year-old architect who has a wife and three kids and lives in Portland’s Rosemont neighborhood. “It’s precious to my whole family.”
But Smith is packing up his medal — a sterling silver eagle dangling from a red, white and blue ribbon — and his plaque signed by President Richard Nixon and returning them to the Boy Scouts of America’s national headquarters in Texas.
Like many other Eagle Scouts across the country, Smith is returning the hardware in protest of the Boy Scouts’ recent affirmation of its longstanding ban on openly gay scouts and leaders.
“I can no longer support the BSA if it cannot include or recognize the gay community,” said Smith, who saw racial discrimination as he grew up in the South. “I want to be on the right side of history.”
Boy Scouts of America is a private organization that “provides the nation’s foremost youth program of character development and values-based leadership training,” according to its website.
Its policy says, “While the BSA does not proactively inquire about the sexual orientation of employees, volunteers, or members, we do not grant membership to individuals who are open or avowed homosexuals or who engage in behavior that would become a distraction to the mission of the BSA.”
The policy affirmation, announced on July 17, came after a two-year review.
“While the majority of our membership agrees with our policy, we fully understand that no single policy will accommodate the many diverse views among our membership or society,” said Bob Mazzuca, chief scout executive, in a written statement.
The national office has received “a few” medals returned in protest, said Deron Smith, the Boy Scouts’ director of public relations.
“Since we rarely receive medals back, we do not have a formal procedure in place to track how many medals are returned,” Smith said.
More than 50,000 Eagle Scout medals are awarded each year, and more than 2 million have been awarded to date, Smith said. The returned medals are being stored at national headquarters and at the National Scouting Museum.
The Pine Tree Council of Maine No. 218, which oversees more than 337 units with more than 9,150 scouts in 10 Maine counties, has heard from only two people who are upset with the policy, said Executive Director Eric Tarbox.
Tarbox, who has been director for five weeks, said he has contacted those people — one of whom is a recent Eagle Scout who’s interested in returning his medal — in an effort to allay their concerns.
While the national policy expressly prohibits “open or avowed homosexuals” from being members, Tarbox said the Pine Tree Council interprets that policy as having “zero tolerance to sexual advocacy and behavior” to kids who mostly are 7 to 18 years old.
“In the Pine Tree area, we view (the national policy) sort of in a broader way,” Tarbox said, noting that the executive committee has not voted on his interpretation. “It isn’t an issue of heterosexuality or homosexuality.”
Tarbox recommends that Eagle Scouts who are upset about the policy not turn in their medals. Instead, they should work within the organization to change policies they disagree with, he said.
“Scouts are taught … not to quit and turn in something like their medals,” he said. “We teach all scouts to maintain their belief by working within the organization.”
Smith, of Portland, said he has been concerned about the policy for years.
Its recent reaffirmation brought him to a breaking point. After seeing reports about other Eagle Scouts returning their medals in protest, he felt compelled to do the same.
“I’m not sure it will change anything in the Boy Scouts,” said Smith, who was a scout leader in Washington, D.C., and moved to Maine in 1985. “I just want to have the comfort of knowing I spoke my piece.”
Smith said he knows he is doing the right thing, but it will be difficult to pack up his medal and plaque and mail them back to the Boy Scouts on Friday.
“They’re beautiful objects of such significance,” he said.
Smith, who learned the value of perseverance and incremental change, said he always wanted to have his Eagle Scout accomplishment noted — especially in his obituary.
But he will not identify himself with that honor until Boy Scouts of America changes its policy.
“I would love for them to change their policy,” he said, and return his medal and plaque.
Staff Writer Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at: