Boy Scouts of America may end ban on gay members

The organization has been under fire from gay rights groups and some parents for discrimination against gays.

DALLAS  Boy Scouts of America is discussing ending a longstanding ban on gay members and whether to allow local organizations to decide their own policy, a spokesman said on Monday.

Lifting the ban would mark a dramatic reversal for the 103-year-old organization, which only last summer reaffirmed its policy amid heavy criticism from gay rights groups and some parents of scouts.

"The BSA is discussing potentially removing the national membership restriction regarding sexual orientation," spokesman Deron Smith said in an email to Reuters.

"The policy change under discussion would allow the religious, civic or educational organizations that oversee and deliver Scouting to determine how to address this issue," the spokesman said.

The organization, which had more than 2.6 million youth members and more than 1 million adult members at the end of 2012, "would not, under any circumstances, dictate a position to units, members or parents," Smith said.

The Boy Scouts won a 5-4 U.S. Supreme Court ruling allowing the organization to ban gays in 2000, but has come under increasing public pressure in recent years from activists including Zach Wahls, an Eagle scout with two lesbian mothers, and Jennifer Tyrrell, a lesbian mother from Ohio who was ousted as a Scout den leader and treasurer.

"An end to this ban will restore dignity to countless families across the country, my own included, who simply wanted to take part in all scouting has to offer," Tyrrell said. "My family loved participating in scouting, and I look forward to the day when we might once again be able to take part."

More recently, amid petition campaigns, shipping giant UPS Inc. and drug-manufacturer Merck announced that they were halting donations from their charitable foundations to the Boy Scouts as long as the no-gays policy was in force.

"This is absolutely a step in the right direction," Wahls said on Monday, adding that if the national board approves the change, he would turn to persuading local councils to enact nondiscrimination policies.

Wahls is the founder of Scouts for Equality, which collected more than 1.2 million signatures opposing the anti-gay policy. His group's membership includes 3,151 other Eagle scouts.

"I think the Boy Scouts' (lifting the ban) is obviously a positive move, but they've been discussing this for a while," said Shane Windmeyer, executive director of Campus Pride, a national group supporting the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

Many of the protest campaigns, including one seeking Tyrrell's reinstatement, had been waged with help from the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation.

"The Boy Scouts of America have heard from scouts, corporations and millions of Americans that discriminating against gay scouts and scout leaders is wrong," said Herndon Graddick, GLAAD's president. "Scouting is a valuable institution, and this change will only strengthen its core principles of fairness and respect."

The Scouts had reaffirmed the no-gays policy as recently as last year and appeared to have strong backing from conservative religious denominations — notably the Mormons, Roman Catholics and Southern Baptists — which sponsor large numbers of Scout units. Under the proposed change, they could continue excluding gays.

Smith said the change could be announced as early as next week, after BSA's national board concludes a regularly scheduled meeting on Feb. 6. The meeting will be closed to the public.

Were the change adopted, Smith said, "there would no longer be any national policy regarding sexual orientation, and the chartered organizations that oversee and deliver Scouting would accept membership and select leaders consistent with each organization's mission, principles or religious beliefs.

"BSA members and parents would be able to choose a local unit that best meets the needs of their families," he said. "Under this proposed policy, the BSA would not require any chartered organization to act in ways inconsistent with that organization's mission, principles, or religious beliefs."

The announcement came shortly after new data showed that membership in the Cub Scouts — the BSA's biggest division — dropped sharply last year and was down nearly 30 percent over the past 14 years.

According to figures provided by the organization, Cub Scout ranks dwindled by 3.4 percent, from 1,583,166 in 2011 to 1,528,673 in 2012. That's down from 2.17 million in 1998.

The Boy Scouts attribute the decline largely to broad social changes, including the allure of video games and the proliferation of youth sports leagues and other options for after-school activities.

However, critics of the Scouts suggest that its recruitment efforts have been hampered by high-profile controversies — notably the court-ordered release of files dealing with sex abuse allegations and persistent protests over the no-gays policy.

The BSA's overall "traditional youth membership" — Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts and Venturers — totaled 2,658,794 in 2012, compared to more than 4 million in peak years of the past. There were 910,668 Boy Scouts last year, a tiny increase from 2011, while the ranks of Venturers — a program for youths 14 and older— declined by 5.5 percent.

In addition to flak over the no-gays policy, the Scouts have been buffeted by multiple court cases related to past allegations of sexual abuse by Scout leaders, including those chronicled in long-confidential records that are widely known as the "perversion files."

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

The Scouts are now under a California court order, affirmed this month by the state Supreme Court, to turn over sex-abuse files from 1991 through 2011 to the 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.

The BSA has apologized for past lapses and cover-ups, and has stressed the steps taken to improve youth protection policy. Since 2010, for example, it has mandated that any suspected abuse be reported to police.

Additional reporting by Ian Simpson and Barbara Liston.

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