Monitor archives:
Copyrighted material

The Boy Scouts and the Mormon Church

by Patrick Boyle

about gay policy of other youth groups
Throughout the 1970s and '80s, members of the health-and-safety committee of the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) would periodically try to initiate discussions and workshops about sex. For the adolescents and teens among Scouting's more than three million boys, sex was a source of wonder and worry; the BSA might have been able to provide guidance on sexual development and abuse. But the BSA's most powerful constituents refused to allow it.

Psychiatrist Walter Menninger, the health-committee chair, later explained it this way in a deposition for a sex-abuse case against the BSA in 1987: "There are a number of sponsoring organizations, particularly the Mormon Church, that have made it quite clear they want Scouting . . . but they want . . . moral, sexual aspects to be strictly part of the church's teaching." Churches, he said, "have a substantial percentage of registrations [of Scouts] and [have] become a much more potent factor" in the organization's decisions.

Several months ago, the Mormons drew another line in the sand over a controversial issue: if BSA units (the troops and packs sponsored by religious and other organizations) must accept homosexuals as leaders, the church would drop out and take its 400,000 scouts -- about 12 percent of the BSA's total membership -- with it. (Sponsoring a Scout troop or Cub pack means taking the responsibility for running it -- everything from providing a meeting place and raising funds to choosing leaders.)

The ban on gay leaders is based on the last two lines of the Scout Oath ("To keep myself physically strong, mentally awake and morally straight"). Ironically, the oath is modeled after the mission statement of the YMCA, which does not ban gays. Although the Scouts' ban has been enforced for decades, a growing segment of the religious organizations that sponsor Scout units now oppose it. And even the most ardent anti-gay denominations have no trouble sponsoring units in other organizations, such as the Girl Scouts, that welcome gay men and lesbians. All this raises a question: how did the Scouts get into this mess in the first place?

More than any other factor, the close relationship between the BSA and religious organizations like the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) -- the Mormons -- explains why the BSA pursued its anti-gay policy all the way to the Supreme Court. It also explains why the BSA stands alone among Boy Scout organizations around the world, and among other youth-serving organizations including the Girl Scouts, the Big Brothers/Big Sisters Association, and the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, in barring homosexuals.

When the Scouts first formed in the United States, the Catholic Church considered them hostile because the BSA worked so closely with the largely Protestant YMCA. There was "a lot of anti-Scout bias" in the Church because Scouting "had a very strong Protestant flavor," says David Peavy, a former member of the National Catholic Committee on Scouting, who is writing a book about the Catholic Church and the BSA.

Americans put more emphasis on religion than British
Imported from England just after the turn of the century, the fledgling Boy Scout movement had found quick friends in the YMCA, largely because William Boyce, a BSA founder, and Edgar M. Robinson, the YMCA's first international secretary for boys' work, were acquaintances, according to Peavy and to a YMCA history being developed by the organization. Some YMCA clubs hosted Scout troops, and Peavy describes Robinson as essentially the Scouts' first chief executive.

The plan was for the BSA eventually to break out on its own, which it did after receiving a congressional charter in 1910. Modeled on the Scouting movement launched in England by war hero Lord Robert Baden-Powell, the American version differed in one key area: its more formal connection to religious practice. Baden-Powell had built British Scouting on religious principles, but the BSA added an 11th element to the Scout Law: "A Scout is reverent toward God. He is faithful to his religious duties." In case anyone missed that "go to church" message, the BSA constitution said, "No boy can grow into the best kind of citizenship without recognizing his obligation to God." And the BSA borrowed from the YMCA's three-tiered focus on "mind, body, and spirit," Peavy says, when it developed its oath:

On my honor I will do my best
To do my duty to God and my country
and to obey the Scout Law;
To help others at all times;
To keep myself physically strong,
mentally awake and morally straight.

Who could object to a boy's saying such a thing? Even the Catholic Church came around, prompted by priests who started Scout troops in their parishes and found the program to their liking. Several Christian denominations were struggling to create youth programs that would instill their religious values and also be fun for the kids. Catholic and Protestant churches alike found Scouting to be a perfect fit: the boys loved it, it had Christian underpinnings, and the BSA encouraged churches to mold their local Scouting programs according to their own religious-education standards.

This was the "genius" of the Boy Scout movement, according to William Murray, an early Boy Scout official who wrote The History of the Boy Scouts of America, published by the BSA in 1937. The LDS Church, in an amicus curiae brief filed with the Boy Scouts case before the US Supreme Court, put it best: "Because of Scouting's devotion to the spiritual element of character education and its willingness to submerge itself in the religious traditions of its sponsors, America's churches and synagogues enthusiastically embraced Scouting."

The BSA's approach benefited both religion and Scouting, as the Mormon brief says: "For many religious organizations . . . the Scouting program is a means of youth ministry. At the same time, sponsorship by religious organizations has enabled the Scouting movement to expand and increase its influence on the nation's boys."

By 1915, 4000 of the nation's 7373 Scout units were chartered to Protestant churches, according to an analysis by the American Family Association Center for Law and Policy, a conservative Christian group. By then the BSA also had a "Commissioner for Scout Work in the Catholic Churches," whose job was to promote Catholic units. In 1918, Peavy says, a letter from the Vatican bestowed the blessing of Pope Benedict XV on Catholic Scouting.

Mormon sponsors 31,000 Scout units, more than any other group
But no group embraced Scouting more enthusiastically than the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Over the years, Scouting became the official youth-ministry program for Mormon boys. In a 1990 LDS newsletter, Apostle Thomas S. Monson said the Church and its troops "serve together; they work together." He added: "Every program I've seen from Scouting complements the objectives we are attempting to achieve in the lives of our young men, helping them strive for exaltation." Today the LDS Church sponsors 31,000 Scout units, more than any other group -- although United Methodist-chartered units account for slightly more Scouts (424,000).

Sixty-five percent of all Scout units are sponsored by religious organizations, according to the BSA. And Mike Montalvo, a Dallas researcher who has examined the Boy Scouts, says 55 percent of all Boy Scouts come from religious organizations. The rest of the Scout units are sponsored by government organizations (such as police departments), educational associations (such as schools), and civic organizations (such as Lions Clubs).

Regardless of the precise numbers, religious-organization influence on Scouting cannot be overstated. Officials from various denominations -- including Mormon, Catholic, Methodist, Lutheran, and Presbyterian -- sit on the BSA executive board and its advisory council. Most of the churches have organizations dedicated to Scouting, such as the Lutheran Association for Scouters, formed to "encourage Lutheran congregations to use the programs and resources of the Boy Scouts of America as a means of extending their ministry to children, youth, and families." The BSA has a Religious Relations Subcommittee. And the BSA has sanctioned badges for churches to award their Scouts for accomplishments tied to religious education: the God and Country badge for Baptists, for instance, and the Religion in Life badge for Unitarians.

These denominations hold a variety of positions on homosexuality, but two of the biggest sponsors -- the Mormon and Catholic churches -- condemn homosexual behavior as sinful. The leadership at BSA, Inc., in Irving, Texas, shares that view and has taken it a step further by saying that gay men should not be working closely with boys. For years, no one questioned this wisdom.

And then Tim Curran took a boy to the prom.

Ban on gays was driving away money and sponsors
Right from the beginning the BSA, just like the Scout Association in England, found that its troops sometimes attracted men who should not be around boys. By 1911, one year after its incorporation, the BSA developed a "Red Flag" list of adults who had been kicked out of Scouting for not meeting the organization's "standards of leadership." People were banned for a variety of sins, such as criminal convictions, public drunkenness, and stealing funds from troops. Over the decades, the biggest single reason for being banned from Scouting was child molesting.

To the BSA, it seemed logical that preventing gay men from becoming Scout leaders was a way of preventing those men from having sex with the Scouts. And the churches weren't the only ones to back the BSA on this: it is clear that most Scout parents, even those who profess a "live and let live" philosophy toward gays, feel uncomfortable with the idea of having their sons led by gay men. Combine that misdirected fear with the fact that a number of families sued the BSA in the 1970s and 1980s for sexual abuse by Scout leaders -- costing tens of millions in lawyers' fees and settlements -- and you have strong support for a ban on gay leaders. (The BSA has subsequently acknowledged in its literature that gay men are no more likely to abuse children than are heterosexual men.)

But even gay youth were not welcome: a Scoutmaster's handbook from the early 1970s discussed sexual experimentation among boys in troops, warning against "the practices of a confirmed homosexual who may be using his Scouting association to make contacts."

Tim Curran says he never used the Scouts for that, but he is gay -- as his Scout council in California found out in 1980, when a newspaper ran a story about his taking a boy to his senior prom. The 18-year-old was booted from Scouting. When he applied to be an adult volunteer the next year, he was rejected.

Curran sued the BSA for discrimination and lost. The California courts ruled this summer that the BSA has a right of association, which means that it can choose its own leaders. But Scouting's homosexual ban was out of the closet -- and at a time when society is becoming more accepting of gay men and lesbians, the ban has become a flash point in the culture wars. Foes call the ban ignorant and bigoted; supporters see the BSA as standing up for bedrock moral values.

It was not until Dale v. Boy Scouts of America reached the Supreme Court in 1999 that the BSA really articulated its reasoning to the public. As in the Curran case, the trouble began with a newspaper story: assistant Scoutmaster James Dale had been quoted in an article about a seminar on the psychological and health needs of lesbian and gay teens, and he was identified as co-president of the Rutgers University Lesbian/Gay Alliance. Dale, who had been an Eagle Scout before becoming an assistant Scoutmaster, soon got a letter from the Monmouth Council of the BSA saying he was banned from Scouting. He sued.

The BSA subsequently issued a statement: "We believe that homosexual conduct is inconsistent with the requirement in the Scout Oath that a Scout be morally straight, and in the Scout Law that a Scout be clean in word and deed, and that homosexuals do not provide a desirable role model for Scouts."

The New Jersey Appellate Division didn't buy it, ruling last August that the BSA action violated the state's Law Against Discrimination (LAD). Most troubling for the BSA was that the court characterized Scouting as a "public accommodation" subject to the LAD, rather than as a private group that could exclude just about anyone as an exercise of freedom of association.

To add to the problem, the ban on gays was driving away money and sponsors.

"The scouts have said many times that their policies are not for sale, and if it costs them sponsorships, so be it," BSA attorney George Davidson told the Supreme Court last month.

And cost them it has. Because of the publicity and the public debates over the issue throughout the '90s, some local United Ways -- in San Francisco and in Portland, Maine, for instance -- withdrew their funding, saying they could not contribute to an organization that discriminates based on sexual orientation. (In 1996 the United Way contributed about $86 million to Scouting.)

In the meantime, the people who really run Scouting -- the million-plus volunteers and the professionals in the local councils -- are far from unanimous on the issue. An executive committee meeting of the Baden-Powell Council in upstate New York in 1992 was typical: in asking the BSA to reconsider its homosexual ban, the council quoted one committee member as pointing out, "Scouting itself has taught many of us tolerance. Others are troubled by the thought of homosexual leaders."

Scout councils in San Jose, California; Narragansett, Rhode Island; and St. Paul, Minnesota (home of the first Catholic troop, in 1910) are among those that have also asked the BSA to reconsider its ban on gays, often citing fear of losing funding.

The Narragansett Council took the apparently unprecedented step last year of reinstating an openly homosexual employee. The 16-year-old Eagle Scout had been released from a summer job at Camp Yawgoog and kicked out of Scouting after camp officials asked whether rumors that he was gay were true. The boy said yes. After a public uproar, the council reinstated his Scouting membership and offered his job back, with an okay from BSA, saying it was Scout policy not to ask about employees' sexual orientation -- an action similar to suppressing evidence because the warrant was bad.

Last year, Scouts Canada accepted the creation of an all-gay troop
Homosexuality is a fault line in American culture, and that line runs through its churches: the religious organizations that sponsor more than half of all Scout units are by no means unified in their positions on homosexuality. The Unitarian Universalist Association, the United Church of Christ, and Reform Judaism are among those that fully accept homosexuality and have urged the Scouts to do the same. The Episcopal Church of the USA, the Presbyterian Church of the USA, and the United Methodist Church have all "acknowledged the presence of gays in their ranks" and are wrestling with the issue, according to an amicus brief filed by several deans of divinity schools and rabbinical institutions.

Some of these denominations have fought the BSA position. A Unitarian handbook published in the 1990s called BSA policies "homophobic." The United Church of Christ implored the BSA in 1993 to "stop its discriminatory practices" of prohibiting openly gay people in Scouting.

But those churches account for a small number of Scout units, and they're not threatening to pull out over the issue. Consider, however, the United Methodist Church (UMC), the BSA's leading youth sponsor, whose struggle over homosexuality mirrors the nation's.

Last September, the Commission of United Methodist Men of the UMC publicly backed the Scouts in their appeal of the Dale ruling in New Jersey. The next month, the UMC General Board of Church and Society took the opposite stand, saying that it "condemns discrimination based on sexual orientation."

The United Methodist Men is a commission that oversees the UMC's Scout program. The Church and Society board deals with UMC social policies. The two are of equal status in the UMC. So who wins? In May, the general conference of the UMC voted not to concur with either position.

Even the National Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement in 1997 urging parents of homosexual children not to break off relations with those children, but to "offer loving support." It said that gays "must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity."

The National Catholic Committee on Scouting and the Methodist Men joined the LDS in an amicus brief backing the Scout ban -- but neither Catholics nor Methodists said they'd withdraw if the Court struck that ban. The LDS Church, however, wrote that it "would withdraw from Scouting if it were compelled to accept openly homosexual Scout leaders."

Several people who have worked at high levels with the BSA believe the organization's strong (or stubborn) stand on gays reflects the muscle of the Mormons and conservative Catholics on BSA boards. But even though the BSA may be concerned about losing Mormon troops, few youth-serving organizations in the United States are in a better position to absorb a financial hit. In 1997, the last year for which BSA tax returns are available, the corporation reported a $56 million operating surplus.

Besides, one need only look to Canada to find evidence that if the BSA were to accept gays, churches would not drop out.

Churches sponsor "just under half" of the 3860 Scout "groups" in Canada, says Scouts Canada spokesman Andy McLaughlin. The Mormon Church accounts for seven percent (272), and the Catholic Church for almost five percent (190).

And last year, Scouts Canada accepted the creation of an all-gay troop. When Scouts Canada polled its sponsors for reaction, "we didn't hear any concerns," McLaughlin says. Scouts Canada has no position on gays' serving as leaders. Neither does the British Scout Association. Both say this causes no trouble with churches that sponsor units.

In the United States, Catholic churches sponsor some Girl Scout troops (the exact number is not available), even though the Girl Scouts do not ban lesbian leaders. It is unclear, however, whether church-sponsored units in these organizations would be forced to accept gays if they did not want to, which is the requirement under New Jersey's Dale decision.

So where does this leave the Scouts? Many observers, such as Mike Montalvo, believe the BSA will eventually leave the decision up to local sponsors. Whether that ever happens will probably depend on some of the same factors that forced the Scouts to pursue their anti-gay policy in the first place: the BSA's relationship with its religious sponsors.

This article first appeared in Youth Today

Comments? Send a letter to the editor.

Albion Monitor October 7, 2000 (

All Rights Reserved.

Contact for permission to use in any format.