Scouts Divided: Since a Supreme Court Ruling against Gays in the Boy Scouts, Americans Are Increasingly Torn over a Beloved Institution

Article excerpt

Jeff Moran and some friends from Troop 1320 dropped onto the lawn near Trading Post 13 last Tuesday, a sweltering morning during the 15th Boy Scouts Jamboree at Fort A.P. Hill near Fredericksburg, Va. Despite the heat wave, over the next 10 days they would help 32,000 other Scouts burn through 76,000 hamburgers, 479,000 eggs, 10 tons of beef stew--and countless hours energetically addressing a controversy that will not fade. "In the Bible, it's a sin to be gay," said Moran, 15, as the sun glinted off his dyed blue hair. Keep them out of scouting? "Exactly," he declared. Fifteen-year-old Greg Gutta Jr. was sympathetic. "They say everybody should have the right to be in the Scouts, but everybody has the right to feel comfortable, too," he said. "A lot of people don't feel comfortable around homosexuals."

Yet within Troop 1320, as in many scouting gatherings around the country, there is no easy consensus. Noah Kinney, a shy 15-year-old, challenged his friends. He knows a few gays back home and thinks they're OK. "I think as long as they stay off of you, they're fine, that's all." Other troop members nodded, even Gutta, despite his own discomfort. "I don't think people should be kicked out for just being gay."

For the Boy Scouts of America it has been a year of such debates since last summer's Supreme Court victory handed them the legal right to exclude gay boys and leaders. In a 5-4 majority, the justices found that the group's religious foundation allowed it to set membership standards at its headquarters in Texas, even if they are at odds with the ordinances or policies on the books in 244 localities and 13 states to protect lesbians and gay men from discrimination.

Polls show that most Americans approve of the court's ruling. They want scouting to be as it always has been, a safe place for kids to learn archery and radio building, but also public service and generosity, loyalty and trust. At one time or another, 110 million American boys have raised their fingers in the scouting oath, raced in pine-box derbies or conquered their fear of the dark at Boy Scout camp. "Traditional families will not be involved with an organization that does not support basic moral values," says Jeff Glaze, a volunteer committee member for Troop 477 in Dunwoody, Ga. "Most don't see homosexuality as something to hold up as a good role model to their kids."

But a surprising thing has happened. A growing number of Americans don't approve of the exclusionary policy--and they're not letting it rest. These aren't skilled combatants in the culture wars, but ordinary heterosexual Americans--moms and dads, priests and rabbis and teenage boys--who are taking a stand on this issue of gay rights simply because they love scouting and want it to do the right thing. By the organization's own internal polls, 30 percent of Scout parents don't support the current policy--people like Boy Scout Second Class Kevin Elliot, NEWSWEEK's 13-year-old cover model. "I think discrimination within the Boy Scouts gets rid of the whole concept of what the Boy Scouts are all about," says the Riverside, Calif., eighth grader. In anger or sadness, some have simply walked away, considering Boy Scouts no better now than a whites-only country club. Earlier this spring Steven Spielberg, a former Eagle Scout, ended 10 years on the advisory board, saying he could no longer serve a group that practices "intolerance and discrimination."

Religious groups are lining up on both sides of the debate. Mormon and Roman Catholic churches--which together sponsor 750,000 Scouts--have supported the straights-only rule. But the United Church of Christ, along with Baptist and Episcopal congregations, have asked Scouts to reconsider. In January the Union of American Hebrew Congregations went even further, issuing a remarkable public denunciation and calling upon synagogues to end Scout sponsorship and congregants to pull their children out of the dens, packs or troops. …