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Boy Scout President Says Gay Leader Ban Threatens the Organization

Boy Scouts of America president, Robert Gates, made the comments at the organization's national annual meeting in Atlanta.
May 22, 2015, 6:55pm
Photo by Elaine Thompson/AP

The Boy Scouts of America's motto is "Be Prepared," and that's exactly what the organization must do to meet the changing tide of support for gay rights if it's to survive, the organization's president declared at its annual meeting.

In a speech at the Boy Scouts' national meeting in Atlanta, Robert Gates — a former US Secretary of Defense — said failure to lift a ban on openly gay scout leaders and keep up with swinging sociopolitical change in support of gay rights in the US "will be the end of us as a national movement."

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"The status quo in our movement's membership standards cannot be sustained," he said.

Individual state chapters should be allowed to decide for themselves whether to allow members of the gay community to serve as volunteers or paid staff, Gates said. At the end of the speech, Gates, who served under both George W. Bush and Barack Obama, received a standing ovation.

"[Gates] has found a way to talk about this that is palatable to the scouting community," the founder of rights group Scouts for Equality, Zach Wahls, told VICE News. "The sense is near universally supportive to what Gates had to say. Essentially there is little doubt this is the path moving forward."

Related: Scout Leader Hiring Could Force Boy Scouts to Finally End Ban on Gay Adults

Gates's comments are seen as the next logical step in policy change, after the BSA opened its doors to gay scouts, but not leaders, in 2013, following a sour and prolonged dispute.

Last month, BSA's New York branch flouted the organization's bylaws by hiring an openly gay 18-year-old college student and Eagle Scout as a summer camp counselor. Gates referenced that decision in his speech, as well as other developments within other local councils that have paved the way to change and acceptance.

"I remind you of the recent debates we have seen in places like Indiana and Arkansas over discrimination based on sexual orientation, not to mention the impending US Supreme Court decision this summer on gay marriage," Gates said. "We must deal with the world as it is, not as we might wish it to be."

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Gates previously presided over the Defense Department while the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy on gay service members was in play, and prepared the military for the repeal of that policy. He has "made his reputation on straight talk and tough divisions," Wahls said.

While the timeline to implement the policy is not yet clear, or whether the scouts will in the future be willing to hire other members of the LGBTQ community, the "urgency" of Gates's words "took people by surprise," said Wahl, adding, "[Gates] made it clear it has to be sooner rather than later."

Related: Utah's LGBT Anti-Discrimination Bill May Become Law (Thanks to the Mormon Church)

In individual states, at least a dozen chapters have gone on the record in support of hiring gay leaders, and have a "live, accessible" non-discrimination policy, while roughly 40 have made positive statements to the media about Gates's speech, said Wahl.

On top of potential legal headaches surrounding the BSA's ban on openly gay scout leaders, Gates also mentioned the benefits of preemptively lifting the organization's ban on atheists.

"For me, I support a policy that accepts and respects our different perspectives and beliefs, allows religious organizations — based on First Amendment protection of religious freedom — to establish their own standards for adult leaders, and preserves the Boy Scouts of America now and forever," he said. "I truly fear that any other alternative will be the end of us as a national movement."

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But while the speech was met with general support from the scouting community, it also raised concerns that the liberalization of scout policy on gay and atheist leaders could alienate the group's religious supporters.

The organization is historically founded on Christian beliefs, with that mindset — a pledge to fulfill a "duty to God" — advertised in the first "promise" a scout must make before he is confirmed as a member.

About 70 percent of scout units are sponsored by churches, and some, including some Southern Baptist churches, have withdrawn support — or threatened to — after the organization allowed gay scouts to serve.

On Thursday, the Utah-based Mormon Church, which is the Boy Scouts' biggest sponsor nationwide, said in a statement it would have to "very carefully" assess BSA's proposed policy changes on gay scout leaders "to assess how they might impact our own century-long association with the BSA."

Related: How Hobby Lobby Paved the Way for the Current Rush of Religious Freedom Laws

Follow Liz Fields on Twitter: @lianzifields