Lezlie Sterling / for NBC News
Jonathan Pickens looks at his Boy Scouts uniform with badges and patches he earned as a boy at his home in Roseville, Calif., on Thursday, Sept. 5, 2013. He has 22 years in the BSA with the troop his father founded.
Families looking for an alternative to the Boy Scouts of America after the group voted to drop its ban on gay youth earlier this year descended on Nashville, Tenn., this weekend to help launch a Christian-based scouting organization.
More than 1,200 former Scout officials, parents and youth from 44 states were attending the two-day national leadership convention where the group unveiled its name – Trail Life USA – and logo, officials with the group said. One of the founders John Stemberger, a former Eagle Scout and father of two scouts, created OnMyHonor.Net, a coalition of disgruntled BSA members who left the organization after the controversial vote in May.
“Most of us are coming from a highly-structured environment that has 103 years of culture and language and program and symbols … and we are starting from scratch,” Stemberger said late Friday as he asked for patience as the group began “a program that we believe will be stronger, safer and more principled in every way.”
Whether the faith-based group gains popularity in the coming months could signal how successful the Boy Scouts of America will be at keeping members when the new policy takes effect on Jan. 1, 2014. BSA members were deeply divided over the decision to allow gay teens, with many vowing to quit the program.
“I do feel strongly enough about the policy that I don’t want my kids there” in the Boy Scouts, said Jonathan Pickens, a California firefighter and father of three young boys who had not yet joined Scouting before the change in the membership guidelines. An Eagle Scout who has 22 years in the BSA with the troop that his dad founded, Pickens -- who opposed lifting the ban on gay Scouts -- would rather “take a little bit of a blind leap of faith and try to make this work.”
Lezlie Sterling / for NBC News
Jonathan Pickens goes through his camping gear at his home in Roseville, Calif., on Thursday, Sept. 5, 2013.
Pickens was in Nashville joining other families and former Boy Scout leaders from across the country to discuss topics such as rank advancement, uniforms and charter partners; former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee will address the meeting.
“I want to have a prominent faith component that will be weaved in every fiber of the program,” said Stemberger, an Orlando attorney. “But at the same time, we are not going to become religious and churchy. This is not another church program. This is going to be a masculine outdoor program to raise young men.”
Boys, ages 5-17, may come from every religious background, but adult leaders in the program will adhere to a standard statement of Christian faith and values. The membership policy will focus on sexual purity rather than orientation. Gay youth and adults can participate, but they cannot “flaunt” their sexuality, Stemberger said in July.
The issue of whether to allow gay youth and adults in the BSA roiled the program for years. A campaign to change the membership policy gained momentum last year after a lesbian was ousted as den mother of her pack and a gay teen was denied the Eagle rank.
Some 70 percent of Boy Scout units are sponsored by churches, many of whom balked at having gays in the program. But as the vote neared on allowing gay youth, the largest church charter partner – The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints – said it would stay with the organization.
Since the ballot, some churches have reportedly ended their partnership with the Boy Scouts in communities in Florida, North Carolina and Indiana. But a BSA spokesman said Thursday that more than 99 percent of its 116,000 chartered partners were sticking with the program while its national office continued to meet with the sponsors on the issue.
“And in the very rare instance that a chartered organization has chosen not to continue with the Scouting program, other organizations have stepped up to charter those units and provide uninterrupted service to the youth in their communities,” spokesman Deron Smith said in an email.
Zach Wahls, founder of Scouts for Equality, a group that campaigns for inclusion of gays and lesbians in the Boy Scouts, said he was sad to see families leave the BSA since his group believes that “Scouting is for all young men.” He also questioned if the Christian group would allow gay teens and men, saying he felt it was a "rhetorical ploy," particularly since the Boy Scouts was maintaining a longstanding policy against any discussions of sexuality within the organization.
"You still cannot discuss sexuality within the BSA. That hasn't changed and that will not change, and so, it's really a distinction without a difference that they're trying to make here," he said.
Wahls and other gay rights advocates, such as GLAAD, have accused Stemberger of being anti-gay, pointing to his work as president of the Florida Family Policy Council, which promotes controversial gay conversion therapy on its website and which helped with the campaign to pass a law banning same-sex marriage in Florida.
Lezlie Sterling / for NBC News
Jonathan Pickens of Roseville, Calif., shows his first badge from OnMyHonor.Net as he packs a bag for Nashville on Thursday, Sept. 5, 2013.
“I want to be clear: We are not an anti-BSA organization,” Stemberger said late Friday. “In fact, we are not an anti-anything or anyone organization.”
For those who have already made the decision to leave the Boy Scouts, they are looking ahead to the Nashville convention and beyond.
Jeff Rayno, 51, a field researcher from Pooler, Ga., said he’d like to lead a troop in the new organization. His son Daniel, 14, is a Boy Scout, and Rayno, who believes that homosexuality is a sin, didn’t want him to be exposed to gays or discussion about sexuality through the program.
“I’m very excited that we can be starting a new thing that’s historical in nature that will be talked about years from now as being a cultural shift,” he said. “People are drawing somewhat of a line in the sand, saying that we have something that we believe in, we have a right to associate with people that think the same way that we do.”
For Alan Scheer, a Scoutmaster from Ochelata, Okla., the adjustment has been exciting but tough. His Troop 20 has stopped wearing their uniforms.
“I’ve cried a river since this started. I wanted to be buried in my Scout uniform. I couldn’t have imagined anything that would ever make me want to take it off again,” said Scheer, 50, an industrial mechanic.
He’ll bring to Nashville a photo album of the equipment that his troop has made from wood using old Boy Scouts’ manuals, like a backpack frame. He wants to show those people starting troops in Trail Life USA how they can save money on buying equipment that they would have gotten in the BSA.
“We’re just going to have to grow it ourselves,” he said. “Starting a troop can be expensive. Being able to connect with the Scouts of the old days and use your hands and make your own gear is a nice way to connect with a past that we are going to share.”
That past is strong for Pickens, who had always dreamed of becoming Scoutmaster of the troop his dad, now deceased, started in 1991. His religious belief that homosexuality is a sin, and his concern that his sons could be exposed to gays in the Boy Scouts, led him to leave the program.
Days after he returns from Nashville, he will introduce the new organization to four BSA troops he hopes to bring with him.
“It’s been kind of a bittersweet, big, big, big change for our family,” he said. “I may have to take on the big job of starting a troop from scratch. Whatever it will be, I am committed to it.”
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 change in the membership policy, you can email the reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.