Two Agencies Agree with Change in Boy Scout Ban
A UMNS Report
By Heather Hahn*
Leaders of two United Methodist agencies — United Methodist Men and United Methodist Board of Church and Society — welcomed news that the Boy Scouts of America is considering ending its decades-long ban on gay scouts and scout leaders.
The proposed change would remove a national membership requirement dealing with sexual orientation and allow local charter organizations to decide. NBC News reports that the Boy Scouts of America could announce the change next week at the national board's regularly scheduled meeting.
"These proposed changes will allow local churches to reflect those tenets in their membership requirements," said a statement by Gilbert Hanke, the top executive of the Commission on United Methodist Men. "It does not force changes, but allows local churches control over these requirements based on their beliefs.
"These proposed changes are actually more consistent with the current Book of Discipline," the denomination's law book, he added.
Jim Winkler, the top executive of the United Methodist Board of Church and Society, echoed that view.
"United Methodists affirm that all persons are individuals of sacred worth, created in the image of God," Winkler said. "Our local churches can now pursue an outreach unfettered by arbitrary restrictions that carry with them potential negative legal consequences or obloquy, and can instead seek to live together with all persons in Christian community, welcoming, forgiving and loving one another."
The agencies' agreement on the proposal marks a stark change from 2000 when they were on opposite sides of a U.S. Supreme Court case that dealt with whether Boy Scouts could bar gays from leadership positions.
The nation's top court, in a 5-4 decision, agreed with the Scouts' legal position that forcing the organization to accept gay troop leaders would violate its constitutional rights to free expression and free association.
United Methodists and scouting
Both Hanke and Winkler stressed the importance of scouting as a ministry of The United Methodist Church.
Boy Scouts of America leaders consulted with Hanke and Larry Coppock, national director of scouting ministries, before proposing to change membership requirements.
As of 2012, 6,700 United Methodist congregations served 363,876 young people through 10,868 Cub Scout packs, Boy Scout troops and Venturing crews. The United Methodist Church is second only to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (commonly known as Mormons) in the number of congregations that host Boy Scouts of America groups.
The United Methodist Church hosts more Cub Scout packs than any other religious group.
Hanke noted that the United Methodist Book of Discipline supports "the rights and liberties for all persons, regardless of sexual orientation."
The Book of Discipline also identifies the practice of homosexuality as "incompatible with Christian teaching." Church law prohibits "self-avowed practicing" gays and lesbians from serving as clergy, but the book is silent about whether they can serve as lay leaders in other roles in the church.
Winkler also pointed out that the Social Principles in the Book of Discipline "implore us not to reject or condemn homosexual members and friends, and instead commit ourselves to be in ministry for and with all persons."
"For that reason, this decision by the Boy Scouts of America alleviates a conflict between their discriminatory rules and our denomination's guidance on faithful social witness," he said.
Scout leaders' reactions
Individual Scout leaders have varied views on the proposed changes.
The Rev. Greg Godwin, who leads a Cub Scout pack at Concord United Methodist Church in Athens, W. Va., favors the proposal because it gives more control to local organizations. Like Hanke and Winkler, he sees the increase in local authority as more in keeping with United Methodist policies.
He said that he expects some United Methodist congregations to welcome gay leaders and members, while others maintain a local ban. He and other United Methodist leaders said they have already heard from some in their communities who absolutely do not want to permit gay leaders.
Godwin, a member of the Commission on United Methodist Men board, also stressed that church leaders should focus on what is and what is not appropriate behavior when choosing who can participate in their scouting ministries. Generally, he said, that has nothing to do with an individual's sexual orientation.
Alan Lish is hopeful the change — if fully approved — will make a big difference in the Pacific Northwest Annual (regional) Conference, where he is coordinator of civic youth-serving agencies and scouting ministries. He said some congregations in his conference have declined to sponsor troops because they disagree with the Boy Scouts of America's current ban.
The leader of Nashville (Tenn.) Troop 3, which East End United Methodist Church has sponsored for 102 years, expressed mixed feelings about the change.
Libor Koudelka, who stressed he was speaking for himself and not his troop, said he's happy people are talking about the inclusion of gay leaders and members. "It's a dialogue that it's time to have," he said.
However, he also said he regards the Boy Scouts of America's proposal to "offload" the authority to the local level "almost cowardly."
"I understand that the BSA does not want to lose its old-time sponsors," he said. "So they've decided to make both sides happy."
He would much prefer the Boy Scouts was "open to everybody" regardless of sexual orientation or the location of the local charter.
Change from 2000
The court case dealing with Boy Scout leadership was one of the rare instances when churchwide agencies found themselves on opposing sides in a legal argument.
In 2000, the Commission on United Methodist Men filed an amicus brief that argued that the Boy Scouts, as a nonprofit, should have the right to set its own course without interference from the government. Joining the brief were the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. The Rev. Joseph Harris, who led United Methodist Men at the time, said the commission's decision to join its amicus brief "was never a comment on (the Boy Scouts of America's) judgment about homosexuality."
The Board of Church and Society took the other side of the question in an amicus brief filed with the Episcopal Church, United Church of Christ and leaders of Reform Judaism. The agency argued that the Boy Scout policy of denying membership based entirely on sexual orientation conflicts with the Social Principles of the denomination.
Harris, who now is the communications director and assistant to the bishop in the Oklahoma Annual (regional) Conference, said he thinks it's healthy that the proposed changes come from the scouting governing body rather than the U.S. government.
He added that he hopes churches see the proposed increase in local control as an opportunity to strengthen scouting ministries.
"The more doors that are open in our churches to any person wishing to participate in any of our ministries, the more opportunity we have to reach the hand of God out to a hurting world," he said. "We do not have to compromise our understandings of Scripture to be open to seeing that those who want to participate in any of our ministries are able to do so. Our witness can be as strong as ever because it lies not in fear of those whose lifestyles may be different than ours but in hope that our ability to 'welcome' anyone will serve as our pointing toward the kingdom."
*Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service.