Before & after WA's controversial gay Boy Scout leader

Why our fair state sits at the beginning, middle and end of the Boy Scouts' gay leader controversy.
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Why our fair state sits at the beginning, middle and end of the Boy Scouts' gay leader controversy.

We shouldn't know Geoff McGrath's name.

The Seattle-area Boy Scout troop leader has been the center of media attention recently after being kicked out of the organization for being gay. And there's more news this week, with the national Boy Scout office revoking the charter of the Methodist church that sponsors McGrath's troop, citing the church's refusal to remove him as a leader.

McGrath's case might have gone differently. 

When news first came early last year that the BSA was considering a change to its long-standing, Supreme Court-affirmed policy barring gay members, it was, in a word, surprising. After all, the organization had reviewed and re-affirmed the ban just a few months prior. The new proposal was to allow local units — or chartering organizations (churches, community groups, schools) that sponsor troops — to set membership standards. The idea being that a church that didn't allow gay members wouldn't have to, but another more liberal church or secular group like a Rotary club could.

This was an idea that then-national Boy Scout president Wayne Perry, who lives in Bellevue, said he supported. Though as a Mormon, Perry didn't personally support gay relationships, he said other religious and secular groups in the Boy Scouts don't have the same belief, and membership policy should reflect that.

What eventually came though, was very different — a Solomonic "splitting the baby in two" policy that moved the needle on membership, but preserved national BSA's control over the issue: Gay youth are OK, but not gay adults.

(Disclosure: I'm an Eagle Scout, and gay, and have previously written on the topic.)

What happened? Why would a policy change that would have allowed Geoff McGrath's troop to keep his leadership have changed so drastically?

A cost-benefit analysis, of course.

The BSA has seen no lack of critique of its new policy — from both sides. In Idaho, a sheriff said his office would stop sponsoring a Boy Scout troop because, in his view, allowing gay youth is "promoting a lifestyle that's against state law." The Southern Baptist Convention officially opposed the Boy Scouts allowing gay youth. One group of faith-based groups opposed to the change has even started their own scouting-like organization, Trail Life USA. Meanwhile, groups like Scouts for Equality say the continued ban on gay adults is discriminatory.

The Boy Scouts have lost a considerable number of members from churches opposed to the new gay youth policy, but so far there has not been an exodus movement from its three largest religious groups: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons), Methodists and Catholics.

Together, these three denominations charter about 56 percent of scout troops, and represent about 40 percent of total youth membership. (See demographic info here.)

Mormons in particular hold the most sway, chartering nearly one third of Boy Scout units. About 18 percent of the BSA's 2.5 million youth members belong to Mormon-sponsored troops. The official youth program for boys in the Mormon Church is the Boy Scouts. Put another way: If you're an active Mormon boy between ages 10 and 18, it's almost certain you'll be a Boy Scout.

It's such an important religious partner, that the Boy Scouts have a national-level executive position, Director of BSA-LDS Relations, based in Salt Lake City at the Mormon Church's headquarters. (Other religious groups have national BSA staff assigned as a liaison, but none with as much attention as the Mormon Church receives, and all others work out of the BSA's national office in Texas.)

Most notably, the Mormon Church did not oppose allowing gay youth. In other words, the largest sponsor of Boy Scout troops, which has been a chartering partner since 1913, won the day.

That is for now. There's no doubt another battle is coming from people who support Geoff McGrath's ability to be a Boy Scout leader. It's not a question of if there will be a large, concerted push to allow gay adults, but when it will occur.

Which makes it all the more intriguing that the new national BSA president, who also lives in the Puget Sound region, is Robert Gates. As Secretary of Defense, Gates was a leading voice in overturning the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy banning gay servicemen and women.

When the Boy Scouts next consider allowing gay adults, they'll again engage in a cost-benefit analysis. They'll ask stakeholders what they think, solicit feedback from members and voting representatives, and they'll hear impassioned arguments for and against it – from religious and non-religious groups.

The question is whether Robert Gates, an Eagle Scout himself, will be the person to oversee that process.


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