Tuesday, December 10, 2013
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.
Austin Smith of Portland is returning his Eagle Scout medal in protest of the Boy Scouts of America’s recent reaffirmation of it’s policy banning openly gay scouts and leaders. “I can no longer support the BSA if it cannot include or recognize the gay community,” he said.
John Ewing / Staff Photographer
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.
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