The Boy Scouts of America (BSA) will no longer prevent gay men from becoming scout leaders — but local troops will still be allowed to maintain their own bans, according to a new compromise policy enacted Monday by the group's 71-member board.
"This change allows… members and parents to select local units, chartered to organizations with similar beliefs, that best meet the needs of their families," the organization said in a statement. "This change would also respect the right of religious chartered organizations to continue to choose adult leaders whose beliefs are consistent with their own."
Nearly 70 percent of BSA chapters are hosted by religious organizations. The Mormon Church, for example, is one of the largest sponsors of BSA chapters. The board's compromise is intended to allow groups that oppose homosexual leaders to maintain their bans, while encouraging more liberal chapters to enact their own leadership policies.
In a statement released Monday after the change was enacted, the Mormon Church said it is "deeply troubled" by the new policy. "The Church has always welcomed all boys to its Scouting units regardless of sexual orientation," the statement said. "However, the admission of openly gay leaders is inconsistent with the doctrines of the Church and what have traditionally been the values of the Boy Scouts of America."
Scouts for Equality, a group of current and former Boy Scouts who have been pushing the organization for more than three years to make the change, praised the vote as "historic," and said it "marks the beginning of a new chapter" for the organization.
"As of this vote, the Boy Scouts of America is an organization that is looking forward, not back," Scouts for Equality executive director Zach Wahls said in a statement. "While we still have some reservations about individual units discriminating against gay adults, we couldn't be more excited about the future of Scouting."
Speaking to VICE News ahead of the vote, Wahls, a 24-year-old Eagle Scout, was more measured in his praise. "It's a step in the right direction," he said. "A non-discrimination policy would be the best policy, but we know they [the BSA board] are navigating a very difficult line."
Pressure has been mounting for the organization to remove its blanket ban on gay leaders. In early July, the BSA's executive board passed a resolution asking the organization to reconsider the ban in response to what it called a "sea change in the law with respect to gay rights." In May, BSA president and former US Defense Secretary Robert Gates called the ban on gay leaders "unsustainable."
Some local chapters have been applying more direct pressure on the national board. In New York, a local affiliate hired Pascal Tessier, an 18-year-old Eagle Scout and gay activist, as a counselor, and threatened to sue under anti-discrimination laws if he were to be dismissed.
'It's a step in the right direction.'
Wahls said the new policy is the result of "sustained pressure" on the BSA from gay rights organizations and corporate sponsors. Companies such as Intel and UPS have threatened to withhold funding from the BSA in response to its anti-gay policies.
Still, the organization has also evolved internally on gay rights over the last 15 years. In 2000, gay scout leader James Dale sued the BSA for discrimination when he was dismissed from his troop; the organization fought Dale all the way to the Supreme Court and won. The BSA made headlines — and alienated some of its more conservative supporters — when it voted to allow gay members in 2014. The move followed several high-profile cases where scouts were expelled from their troops because of their sexuality.
Michael Harrison, a businessman who led a Boy Scouts troop in Orange County, California, and has lobbied for a more gay-friendly policy, said Monday's decision is a good compromise for the BSA. "There are differences of opinion, and we need to be respectful of them," he told the New York Times. "It doesn't mean the Mormons have to pick a gay scoutmaster, but please don't tell the Unitarians they can't."
Some conservative scouting groups see things differently. "We are greatly saddened by the BSA's resolution," John Stemberger, the director of Trail Life USA, a scouting group formed after the BSA allowed gay members in 2013, said in a statement. "The new resolution… clearly affirms that homosexual acts can be 'moral, honorable, committed and respectful.' This opinion is wholly incompatible with historic Christian theology and ethics, and will make it even more challenging for a church to integrate a BSA unit as part of a church's ministry offerings."
Follow Avi Asher-Schapiro on Twitter: @AASchapiro