January 29, 2013

Boy Scouts may end strict no-gays policy

Maine parents appear to support overturning the longtime ban. Some say there wouldn't be a noticeable difference.

By Eric Russell erussell@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

PORTLAND — Boy Scouts of America is considering a proposal to end its policy of prohibiting gay men and boys from being troop leaders and scouts.

Today's poll: Boy Scouts

Should the Boy Scouts of America give spon­sors of troops the authority to decide whether to accept gays as Scouts and leaders?

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In this July 18, 2012 file photo, Jennifer Tyrrell hugs her son Cruz Burns, 7, outside Boy Scouts national offices in Irving, Texas, after a meeting with representatives of the 102-year-old organization. The Ohio woman was ousted as a den mother because she is a lesbian. The Boys Scouts of America announced Monday, Jan. 28, 2013, that it is considering a dramatic retreat from its controversial policy of excluding gays as leaders and youth members. (AP Photo/LM Otero, File)

click image to enlarge

A statue of a Boy Scout stands in front of the National Scouting Museum, Monday, Jan. 28, 2013, in Irving, Texas. The Boy Scouts of America announced it is considering a dramatic retreat from its controversial policy of excluding gays as leaders and youth members. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

The change would lift the longstanding ban at the national level and allow local religious and civic groups that sponsor Boy Scout and Cub Scout troops to decide how to address the issue, said Deron Smith, national spokesman for the Boy Scouts.

"The Boy Scouts would not, under any circumstances, dictate a position to units, members or parents," Smith said Monday in a prepared statement.

The organization's board of directors is expected to vote on the change in the coming weeks.

Boy Scouts officials in Maine said such a policy shift at the national level likely would have little impact here, but parents of scouts applauded the news.

"As a Cub Scout parent, I just think it's a dumb policy," said Kelly McDonald, 37, who was an Eagle Scout and whose 7-year-old son is now a Scout. "I've talked to many parents who have been reluctant to join because of this hateful policy. It's just an unfortunate message to send our kids."

Isaiah Meyer, 35, the father of a Scout in Portland, said that when his 8-year-old son joined last year, he didn't know about the policy. If he had, he might have thought twice about letting his son participate, Meyer said.

"Lifting the ban would be welcome news," he said. "I can't imagine anyone finding fault."

If the ban remains, Meyer said, he won't hide that fact from his son and will even encourage him to question it.

Meg Kusturin, 48, of Gorham, said she doesn't oppose lifting the ban, but thinks it would change little.

Kusturin's 9-year-old son, Christopher, has been a Scout for three years and the issue has never come up.

"I don't think it's the role of Boy Scouts to wade into these political discussions," Kusturin said. If scouts have questions about gay scouts or troop leaders, they should be directed to parents, she said.

Kusturin said she supports the provision for local troops to make their own decisions in accordance with their beliefs.

Eric Tarbox, executive director of the Portland-based Boy Scouts chapter, the Pine Tree Council, said the council has a zero-tolerance policy against "sexual advocacy or inappropriate behavior." He declined to say whether "sexual advocacy" would include simply being openly gay.

In the past, someone who disclosed that they were gay would be banned from scouting, but Tarbox said the chapter doesn't ask about sexual orientation.

Asked how lifting the ban would affect leaders and troops in the Pine Tree Council, Tarbox said that was "a tough one."

"We don't poll folks on this," he said.

Boy Scouts of America, which celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2010, first considered lifting its ban about a year ago and put together a task force to study the issue. In July, the organization affirmed its position, calling the ban "the best policy for the organization," according to The Associated Press.

The policy, however, has come under increasing criticism, including petition drives to force the organization to overturn the ban, and the suspension of donations to the Boy Scouts from some sponsoring companies, including UPS and Merck.

Alice Kornhauser, spokeswoman for the United Way of Greater Portland, said her organization, which partners with many nonprofit agencies in the Portland area, stopped funding local Boy Scout troops in 1992.

"We felt at the time that the Boy Scouts were violating our discrimination policy," she said.

If the ban is lifted, Kornhauser said, the Boy Scouts will be able to apply for United Way funds.

The national organization sets broad policies, but nearly 300 councils nationwide govern the conduct of about 116,000 local troops. About 70 percent of those troops are sponsored by religious organizations, representing diverse views on gay scouts and leaders.

Officials have said it's likely that gays have served in the organization but have done so without discussing their sexual orientation.

The possible shift could be a response to a decline in Cub Scout membership of nearly 30 percent in the past 14 years.

Last year, after the Boy Scouts affirmed the ban on gay scouts and leaders, Austin Smith, 55, of Portland returned the Eagle Scout medal he earned nearly 40 years ago. He said he made the decision because he wanted to "be on the right side of history."

On Monday, Smith said the potential lifting of the ban would be a big deal. "I was confident that it would be lifted. It was just a matter of when," he said.

When Smith returned his medal in August, he said he was surprised by the reaction, both positive comments from his neighbors and negative responses from anonymous online newspaper readers.

He said that if he had to do it again, he would still return his medal.

In addition to being criticized over its ban on gays, Boy Scouts of America has been buffeted recently by multiple court cases alleging sexual abuse by scout leaders, including those chronicled in long-confidential, recently released records widely known as the "perversion files."

Through various cases, the scouts have been forced to reveal files dating from the 1960s to 1991. They detail numerous cases in which abuse claims were made and Boy Scout officials never alerted authorities, and sometimes sought to protect the accused.

Boy Scouts of America is now under a court order in California, affirmed this month by the state Supreme Court, to turn over sex-abuse files from 1991 through 2011 to lawyers for a former Scout who claims a leader molested him in 2007, when he was 13. It's not clear how soon the files might become public.

Staff Writer Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at:

erussell@pressherald.com

Twitter: @PPHEricRussell

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Today's poll: Boy Scouts

Should the Boy Scouts of America give spon­sors of troops the authority to decide whether to accept gays as Scouts and leaders?

Yes

No

View Results