IRVING, Texas – The Boy Scouts of America, which reconfirmed last summer its policy banning openly gay people from participation, then said last week it was reconsidering the ban, said Wednesday that it would postpone a decision once more, until May, as talk of gays in the ranks has roiled a storied organization that carries deep emotional connection and nostalgia for millions of Americans.
An end to the national ban on gays, which the U.S. Supreme Court said in 2000 was legal free speech by a private organization, would create a moment of risk, experimentation and change for people on both sides of the issue. The proposal floated last week would allow local scouting councils to decide membership rules for themselves.
The proposed change created multiple fracture lines of its own. Some supporters of the ban said they feared a wave of departures by conservative church-sponsored troops, while supporters of the change said that scouting, with fewer boys every year putting on the tan uniform to work for merit badges, would be revitalized. Scout leaders who favored a complete about-face on gays – prohibiting discrimination everywhere in the organization – said the compromise position by the executive board would still leave scouting open to accusations of homophobia by its critics, because discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation would still be allowed locally.
Other scout leaders and parents said a fracture between conservative scout councils and liberal ones could create walls – troops still banning gays disdaining gay-led troops, and vice versa – or could open the door to a new dialogue about difference and diversity.
The Boy Scouts said in a statement emailed to reporters that it had received “an outpouring of feedback from the American public” about the proposed change.
“It reinforces how deeply people care about scouting and how passionate they are about the organization,” the statement said. “After careful consideration and extensive dialogue within the scouting family, along with comments from those outside the organization, the volunteer officers of the Boy Scouts of America’s National Executive Board concluded that due to the complexity of this issue, the organization needs time for a more deliberate review.”
Maintaining local control became a crossroads of the debate. Although many of the church sponsors are culturally conservative, and might in some cases be opposed to open acceptance of gays in society, they also cherish the right to make scouting a cultural adjunct of their respective belief systems.