Is It Time For Boy Scouts To Be More Inclusive?

The Boy Scouts of America is expected to vote next week on whether to change its national policy that bans gay leaders and gay scouts. Many suggest the more than 100-year-old organization is backing away from the ban because some prominent sponsors are pressuring the group to reconsider.

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The Boy Scouts of America is wrestling with whether to change its national policy on gays. It has long banned gay scouts and gay leaders. But next week, it's expected to vote on whether to give local chapters flexibility.

As NPR's Kathy Lohr reports, the issue is causing a strong reaction among church groups, parents and scout leaders across the country.

KATHY LOHR, BYLINE: Parents and volunteer troop leaders stop in at the Scout Shop in the Atlanta suburbs, to pick up camping equipment, uniforms and merit badges. Joe Brooks from Buchanan, west of Atlanta, runs down a list of some the badges he's buying for his troop.

JOE BROOKS: Family life, life-saving, geology, fishing, search and rescue, chemistry...

LOHR: Brooks say he doesn't want the Boy Scouts to change its policy. And he says the private group shouldn't be pressured by sponsors or activists.

BROOKS: But I think they should have the right to be able to say: This is who we want to be in this group, and this is who we don't.

LOHR: Denise Brown, who has a son in scouting, agrees. She says her troop in Alpharetta, Georgia, has already lost several children because of the fear that the Boy Scouts will allow openly gay leaders. Brown says her Baptist faith condemns the gay lifestyle, so she strongly opposes the idea.

DENISE BROWN: And it gets pushed in your face through television, through radio, through events. It tells children that it's OK. It's good. And my faith says not.

LOHR: But there are others in the Atlanta area who disagree.

FRANCIS GILLIS: I would say they're probably about 10 years behind the curve right now.

LOHR: Long-time Atlanta area Scout Master Francis Gillis is retired from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and has helped mentor nearly 100 Eagle Scouts. He says it's time for the scouts to be more inclusive.

GILLIS: We teach tolerance in scouting program. And it's ethnically and religious-side tolerance. And now it's just getting to be with society's tolerance, as well. And I believe the vast majority of my parents that are associated with our program are going to be very tolerant.

LOHR: Gillis says the United Methodist Church sponsors his troop. And he says they've noted their support for a policy that bans discrimination. The proposal the Boy Scouts executive board will consider would allow local chapters to decide whether to allow gays to participate.

Eric Scone is a former Eagle Scout living in Arizona. He says simply allowing chapters to make their own decisions doesn't go far enough.

ERIC SCONE: To begin to restore the credibility that they had before, they might need to come out and acknowledge that maybe they were wrong, acknowledge that they made a bad decision. Or, you know, present the justification for why they're changing their mind.

LOHR: But the Family Research Council has asked its members to call the Boy Scouts and tell the organization to, quote, "stand firm in its moral values." Rob Schwarzwalder is senior vice president for the group, and has two sons in scouting.

ROB SCHWARZWALDER: Boy Scout troops do things together all the time. Just a couple weeks ago, we were camping in Maryland with a group of about 12 troops. If you have three of them that are affirming of homosexual conduct and nine of them that are not, how is that going to work in practice?

LOHR: About 70 percent of Scout chapters are affiliated with churches. And Schwarzwalder says many will simply lose their charters. It's clear this issue has split parents and the groups that sponsor troops. But Atlanta leader Francis Gillis says it doesn't have to.

GILLIS: There's going to be some push back. And I think there's going to be some attrition on our membership rolls. It's kind of a shock for some. But as people grow and start to understand what it's really all about, I can see the program coming back on a rebound.

LOHR: Neither the national organization nor the Atlanta office would make any statement until after next week's board meeting. This weekend, some churches will celebrate Scout Sunday, holding special services and prayers to honor members.

Kathy Lohr, NPR News, Atlanta.

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