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'Gravely distressed': Religion looms large over Boy Scouts decision on gays

Dave Kaup / for NBC News

Eagle Scout Addison Jones, 15, holds hands during a hymn with parishioners of the Country Club Congregational United Church of Christ in Kansas City, Mo., on "Scout Sunday."

If prayer can't sway Boy Scouts board members as they vote whether to end the organization's ban on gays, it won't be for lack of trying.

The Boy Scouts of America announcement last week that it may eliminate the exclusion of gays from membership at the national level, leaving the decision to its local units, has drawn a harsh backlash from some of the organization's more religious conservative members, who are "gravely distressed," even as more liberal churches hailed the move.

With more than two-thirds of Scouting groups affiliated with religious bodies, faith plays a large role in the private youth organization.

"I think it’s clear that the Scouts have made a sea change in who they are and that down the road they will be a different organization than they are today,” said Roger “Sing” Oldham, spokesman for the conservative Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee, whose leader, Frank S. Page, urged for a prayer to be held among congregations on Sunday that the board members would not allow gays.

“I think there are a lot of parents and students who will make the decision to look for other organizations that are more in line with the principles that they espouse,” he said. 

The Scouts' began National Executive Board and Committee meetings on Monday, and a decision on the gay ban is expected Wednesday.

The Scouting movement has heavy involvement from religious groups, with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the United Methodist Church and the Catholic Church together sponsoring more than 1 million Scouts, according to Boy Scouts data for 2011. Overall, faith-based groups sponsored nearly 70 percent of the more than 100,000 Scouting units that year, compared with civic organizations backing 23 percent and educational outfits 8 percent.

In the Scout Oath, youth pledge to do their "duty to God," and the organization holds special celebrations in tandem with churches, such as “Scout Sunday,” just ahead of the Feb. 8 anniversary of the founding of the Boy Scouts in 1910. This year, "Scout Sunday" was held Feb. 3 in a number of congregations across the country, and people on social media reported troops receiving their religious medals and posted pictures of Scouts in uniform at church. The BSA offers a guide to the church observance on its website.

“Boy Scouts are like baseball and apple pie,” said Rev. Chase Peeples of the gay-friendly Country Club Congregational United Church of Christ in Kansas City, Mo., which honored Scouts on Sunday and displayed on its front lawn a banner with a rainbow background reading, “We welcome ALL Boy Scouts.”

A church in Kansas City, Missouri, says all boy scouts and troop leaders, regardless of sexual orientation, should be welcomed to participate in one of America's largest youth organizations. KSHB's Alicia Myers reports.

“And because churches have been the sponsoring organizations of most troops, that is why (allowing gays) is such a threat and the backlash has really been so harsh” by religious conservatives, he added.

For some who oppose gays in the Boy Scouts, the decision comes as an about-face just seven months after the organization said it was sticking with the policy following a confidential two-year review of the disputed membership guidelines.


That review was announced months after Jennifer Tyrrell was dismissed from her post as leader of her son’s Tiger Cubs den because she is a lesbian, and a few months before California teen Ryan Andresen was denied his Eagle award because he is gay.

Both cases made national headlines for several weeks, roiling the private youth organization. Some critics pointed to declining membership numbers as a sign that families were being turned off over the issue.

Greg Nelson, scoutmaster of Troop 754, chartered by the First United Methodist Church in St. Charles, Mo., said talk of sexuality had no place in the Scouts. He welcomed the change, saying it would have no impact on his troop, noting: “My boys are ahead of the curve on this, anyway.”

“Scouting does not have a Sexuality Merit Badge. We don't teach youth about their sexuality, and we aren't going to. It is too controversial, and we have a different job,” Nelson, 60, wrote to NBC News in an email. “When sexual issues come up in the troop we tell the boys that sexuality is private. It is not to be discussed in public. Scouting is a public organization. We tell them human intimacy is a gift from God and should be treated reverently and in this case, privately.”

Though the Southern Baptists have issued strong statements appealing the proposal, the Mormon church and the National Catholic Committee on Scouting have declined comment until the Boy Scouts make a final decision.

The United Methodist Men, which has as one of its missions to train youth to be leaders through ministries with the Boy Scouts, told supporters it knew there were “strong and legitimate concerns on both sides of this issue.” The group backed the Boy Scouts in a U.S. Supreme Court case opposing the inclusion of gays, which the BSA won in 2000.

“This is a BSA decision which we did not ask for,” Gilbert C. Hanke, general secretary of the General Commission of the United Methodist Men, wrote in a Jan. 31 statement posted online.

But the organization has endorsed the plan because it “will not change the way Scouting is conducted within our denomination,” he said, noting: “You choose the leaders, you recruit the Scouts, the leadership of your troop and pack reflects the traditions and values of your faith community.”

For some in that community, such an approach was welcome.

Karen Harrington, whose son is an Eagle Scout and whose husband is involved in Scouting through their Mormon-sponsored troops in Okemos, Mich., said she thought the BSA had come up with a “compromise that everyone can live with.”

“It would be wrong to force all Scout troops to accept gay leaders -- especially church-sponsored troops that object because of their religious beliefs,” Harrington, 54, wrote to NBC News. “The right to follow one's religious beliefs cannot be trumped by others' desires to express their sexual preference. There are multiple Scout troops in our little city -- plenty of room for variety of belief and interest.”

But for others, gays have no place in the Scouts.

Jordan E. Clay, a Mormon from Bloomington, Ill., who is an adviser to various local troops supported by his church, said he was saddened by the proposed change. He believed BSA was motivated by a fear of losing corporate sponsorship dollars, as it has in recent years from the likes of Intel and Merck, due to the policy.

“If the BSA abandons the moral and principled position it has defended, it will die on the vine,” Clay, 51, and an Eagle Scout, wrote. “It is only a viable organization today because it stands for something, and several large religious organizations throw their support toward the BSA precisely because it stands for something moral and good.”

After years of heartache, gay Scouts and supporters react warily over proposal to lift ban

Hanke and Page, of the Southern Baptist Convention, said the BSA had informed them of the proposal two weeks before it was announced publicly. Page said in an online statement he was “gravely distressed” when he first learned about it, and even more so when he learned that the recommendation to the full Scouts’ board had already been formalized.

When asked for comment on how some of the more conservative faiths were responding to the proposed policy change, Boy Scouts spokesman Deron Smith wrote to NBC News in an email: "We recognize, deeply respect and appreciate the sincere religious beliefs about this issue." He also said: "The process of this discussion was an internal dialogue, within the Scouting family, about what would be in the best interest of Scouting."

Jeff Swensen / for NBC News

Rev. Scott Thayer, a Boy Scout chaplain for the Ohio River Valley Council who is a minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), supports changing the policy to welcome gays but has curbed his rhetoric at the local level to pastor to everyone, regardless of their stance on the controversial issue, during this emotional time.

Terry Howerton, who started the popular Scouting forum Scouter.com network in the mid-'90s, said there was a lot of “apocalyptic” chatter in the wake of the announcement, but he felt it was coming from outsiders trying to use the issue as a tool in the pop culture wars.

“There are enough current leaders … who I think love Scouting so much and understood that just as much as they would have argued in the past that this issue didn’t really affect their unit, they are kind of coming to the realization that a change in policy also doesn’t really affect their unit,” he said. “At the end of the day, that’s what’s great about this compromise, which seems so blatantly obvious.”

Obvious, he noted, because the Boy Scouts underwent similar passionate trials when the organization allowed African-American boys to join and women to serve as leaders –- all by letting the local units decide.

“Racially we went through this, and for women we went through this, and we’re going through the exact same thing with gays,” said Howerton, a 40-year-old entrepreneur from Evanston, Ill., who left the organization about five years ago over the policy but now is thinking of returning if gays are allowed.

Advocates on both sides of the issue have stepped up their campaigns ahead of the final decision: They’ve encouraged their backers to make their voices heard through a phone-in and email deluge, and Scout leaders ousted because they were gay will deliver petitions with more than one million signatures to Boy Scouts headquarters on Monday.

But the Rev. Scott Thayer, a Boy Scout chaplain for the Ohio River Valley Council who has quietly been working within the organization for years to change the policy to welcome gays, said as of late he has tried to stay out of the local conversation so he could “be the pastor for everybody, not just the ones who agree with me,” during this emotional time. (Bob Drury, a leader of the Ohio council to which Tyrrell also belonged, told NBC News that he has received positive and negative reactions to the possible change).

“There are people who are just, you know, hanging black crepe right now for the Scouts, and I don’t think that’s going to happen,” said Thayer, chaplain of Bethany College in West Virginia and a minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), which allows congregations to decide whether to welcome gays and sponsors some 35,000 youths who participate in the Boy Scouts.

“For the first time in a long time I feel really, really encouraged because of what’s going on,” he said. “I look forward to this year’s U.S. National (Scout) Jamboree and welcoming all kids and all adults who want to be in Scouting regardless of … who they love.”

If you are a current or former member of the Boy Scouts and would like to share your thoughts on how your troop, pack or council is handling the possibility of a change in the membership policy, you can email the reporter at miranda.leitsinger@msnbc.com. We may use some comments for a follow-up story, so please specify if your remarks can be used and provide your name, hometown, age, Boy Scout affiliation and a phone number.

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