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Boy Scouts of America enters new era as group opens to gay youth tomorrow

BSA’s controversial decision to admit openly gay youth has generated tense debate among much of the organization’s 2.6 million youth members, their families and alumni since a vote on the issue last May.
By Miranda Leitsinger, Staff Writer, NBC News

For 103 years, Boy Scout Troop 101, one of the oldest west of the Mississippi River, has called Pomona First Baptist Church home. But that relationship will end on New Year’s Day when the church will sever ties with the troop over the Boy Scouts of America’s decision to admit openly gay youth.

The split between the southern California troop and its long-time sponsor is one example of the fallout from the Boy Scouts’ new membership policy, which takes effect Jan. 1. "Had the organization not made a decision that moved in an entirely different direction than where it had been for the last 100 years,” said Peter Torry, executive pastor of Pomona First Baptist Church, “we'd still be chartering them."

BSA’s controversial decision to admit openly gay youth has generated tense debate among much of the organization’s 2.6 million youth members, their families and alumni since a vote on the issue last May. Some families and troops who were opposed to the new policy have left for alternate groups. Others who support it have joined or returned to the Boy Scouts. And still others have decided to stay with the Scouts although they oppose the change.

So far, the vast majority of charter partners nationwide have chosen to remain Scout sponsors, said BSA spokesman Deron Smith. The organization estimates that less than 2 percent of its 116,000 troops and packs were dropped by their sponsors.

In Pomona, church officials delivered the news in mid-December that Troop 101’s charter would not be renewed after it expired on Dec. 31, leaving troop leaders scrambling to find another sponsor within weeks. On Sunday, the troop voted to accept an offer from a new partner, also a church. Scoutmaster James Meyette said he felt “encouraged.”
“We have somewhere where we’re wanted,” said Meyette, 44, a father of two boys in Scouting. “It is a relief knowing that the troop is not going to fade away.”

“What we’ll be able to take away from this is being able to teach the boys that life isn’t always neat and tidy,” said Meyette, who will be charged with clearing out troop relics and equipment from the church, including photos of its Scouts pre-dating World War II. How one deals with change and moves forward “is going to define you,” he added.

One unanswered question for troops across the nation has been how members who opposed the gay youth policy but were sticking with the Scouts would handle the change. Meyette said he had his own "come-to-Jesus moment."

Richard W. Rodriguez / AP file
Opponents of a policy to admit openly gay youth in the Boy Scouts hold a prayer vigil in front of Boy Scouts of America headquarters in Irving, Texas, on Feb. 6, 2013.

"I had to ask myself a simple question: ‘What would Jesus do?’" he said. He then determined: “We are all equal in God’s eyes, and I’m going to try to hold that standard to myself.”

The Boy Scouts seemed to be hoping that members who opposed including gay youth would come around, noting in many statements that it felt families would ultimately stay in one of America’s most popular youth programs.

“The new policy allows kids who sincerely want to experience this life-changing program while remaining true to the long-standing virtues of the Boy Scouts of America,” Smith said.

After the vote, the organization reviewed its policies to ensure a smooth transition. It issued a guide in August on the admission of gay youth and has been working with local Scouting officials on specific issues that arise. But “no major changes were required to implement the new policy,” Smith said in an email.

Zach Wahls, executive director of Scouts for Equality, said he felt the BSA would learn that there was nothing to worry about by admitting gay youth. “The biggest result of this change is simply going to be people wondering what all the fuss is about,” said Wahls, an Eagle Scout and son of a lesbian couple.

Even many religious organizations, which make up about 70 percent of BSA charter partners, have stayed aligned with the Boy Scouts despite the membership change. Some of the largest church backers – such as The Church of Jesus-Christ of Latter-day Saints, which sponsors some 430,000 troops, United Methodist Men and the Catholic Church – encouraged their members to stay with the Scouts, while the Southern Baptist Convention allowed churches to decide.

A LDS statement supporting the Boy Scouts was read at Mormon religious services in the summer, and the National Catholic Committee on Scouting also posted a Q&A on its website to clarify what the policy change meant.

Nonetheless, an alternate faith-based Scouting group formed in the wake of the vote is preparing to welcome many ex-Boy Scout into its organization. The group, Trail Life USA, launches on Jan. 1. It will not allow open and avowed gay youth, according to board chairman John Stemberger, a former BSA Scoutmaster.

Some 425 units, with an average of 20 boys, have signed up with Trail Life USA. About half of the incoming adults and youth were formerly with the Boy Scouts, said Stemberger. “We’re not trying to compete with the BSA,” he said. “We’re just trying to provide a quality program for those that want it.”

While some families were leaving the Boy Scouts over the inclusion of gay youth, others were joining, like Jack Wallace, 9, of LaSalle, Ill. A few years ago he had asked his mother, Christy Donahue, if he could participate, and she said no because the group didn’t accept everyone.

Jack Wallace combs his hair before an outing with his Cub Scout pack on Dec. 18, 2013, in LaSalle, Ill. His mother allowed him to join the Scouts only after the organization voted to admit openly gay youth.

When he approached her again this fall with a Cub Scouts leaflet, she told him he could sign up.
“I freaked out, like happily freaked out,” said Jack, a fourth grader. He said he enjoys earning the badges and is looking forward to his first Pinewood Derby.

For Donahue, 50, who previously had no experience with the Boy Scouts but now volunteers with her son’s pack, it was great to be part of the organization’s next phase. “I believe that the true heart of the Boy Scouts is the direction that they’re going,” she said.

The BSA said it wouldn’t be keeping tabs on the number of gay Scouts coming forward. There has never been a place for talk of sexuality – straight or gay – in the program, the group has said.

But Pascal Tessier, a 17-year-old gay Boy Scout from Kensington, Md., who can now apply for the BSA’s highest honor – the Eagle rank – over the next few weeks, feels things will be different going forward for gay youth in Scouting. Though he is disappointed that gay adults still are excluded from participating in the Boy Scouts, he is “ecstatic” that the new policy will finally go into effect and doesn't think it's impact will be limited to people in the organization.

“It obviously encourages people to be who they are and not be afraid to come out,” he said, noting he felt this would be another sign “that the times are changing and that it’s okay to be gay.”
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