Years of criticism and even a U.S. Supreme Court challenge couldn't force the Boy Scouts of America to admit openly gay members and leaders. But money talks, and after the defections of major donors, the 103-year-old organization is poised to lift its national ban.
Just last summer, the Boy Scouts reaffirmed the ban after a lengthy internal review. Several incidents since then have tarnished the organization's image and fueled an aggressive nationwide protest led by an Eagle Scout.
Boys Scouts of America hasn't disclosed its reasons for considering the policy change. Spokesman Deron Smith said in a statement that the organization's board of directors "is discussing potentially removing the national membership restriction regarding sexual orientation. This would mean there would no longer be any national policy regarding sexual orientation."
The decision to revisit the policy next week comes at a time of increased opposition from local scouting groups, a steady decline in membership and a loss of financial support.
UPS, Intel, Merck and United Way are among the biggest corporate donors that discontinued or halted their contributions in recent months, citing their own policies barring discrimination based on sexual orientation. Intel, for instance, gave the Boy Scouts $700,000 in 2010. UPS contributed about $167,000 in 2010.
"Gay rights, abortion, gun control, these are the three third-rail issues in America where companies don't want to be associated with those issues," says David Hessekiel, president of the Cause Marketing Forum and co-author of the book Good Works: Marketing and Corporate Initiatives that Build a Better World ... and the Bottom Line. "Any issue that will put you in a position of offending a large group of people is poisonous to developing relationships with corporate sponsors."
In a 2012 study of companies' "brand health" by Harris Interactive, the Boy Scouts scored below the national average, of 58 percent, for youth-oriented nonprofit groups. The Girl Scouts of the USA ranked first, with 67 percent.
Pressing The Case For Change
The national organization sets policies for the nearly 300 regional councils that govern some 116,000 local troops. If approved, the change would allow local scouting organizations to set their own leadership and membership rules.
The palpable unpopularity of the Boy Scouts' policy provided leverage for opponents. Much of the activism has been driven by Eagle Scout Zach Wahls, 21, who founded Scouts for Equality.
Wahls, who is no longer active in scouting, partnered with the LGBT advocacy group GLAAD and conducted a petition drive on Change.org urging companies to withdraw their support from the Boy Scouts. The first leg of the campaign, targeting Intel, collected more than 30,000 signatures.
"Nobody expected this necessarily, but it's not surprising given how much pressure the BSA is under," Wahls says. "Even though they were losing national support, BSA really is a grass-roots organization. I do think it was really the local pressure that led to this."
The Boy Scouts draws the majority of its support from the Mormon and Catholic churches and other Christian organizations. And as many as 70 percent of the local scouting troops are affiliated with churches, which provide not only funding, but facilities and resources for meetings and other activities.
Churches have supported the anti-gay policy. In a brief filed in the 2000 Supreme Court case, an attorney for the Mormon church wrote: "The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — the largest single sponsor of Scouting units in the United States — would withdraw from Scouting if it were compelled to accept openly homosexual Scout leaders."
On Thursday, a spokesman for the Mormon church, Michael Purdy, said in a statement that "it would be inappropriate for the Church to comment" before the Boy Scouts board votes on the policy.
Some local troops claim the national office has used the anti-gay policy to threaten revocation of their charter status if they don't comply.
The policy was used in the high-profile rejection of California teen Ryan Andresen's Eagle Scout application, because he's gay. And in Ohio, a cub pack's den leader was dismissed because she's a lesbian.
Local troops say the public backlash over the policy has set back their own fundraising efforts. Scout leaders in Moraga, Calif., say donations to the annual Friends of Scouting fundraiser are down.
"This year there's a lot of anti-scouting feeling here," says Wendell Baker, scoutmaster of Troop 234 in Moraga. (Andresen belonged to a different troop in the area). Baker's troop is among many that have issued statements opposing the national policy. "The policy is horrible. It needs to change. The impact on us was huge because we're in the same community where Ryan is."
More Local Control
If the national policy is changed, local scouting units would be allowed to set their own requirements for membership, and sponsors would be permitted to dictate how their money is spent.
Activists complain that the proposed new policy would allow local troops to continue to ban gays and lesbians, particularly those troops controlled or funded by religious groups.
"There's a subtle difference between requiring groups to discriminate and allowing groups to discriminate," Wahls says. "Discrimination either way sends the wrong message to youth. So our work won't be done if this ban is lifted."
The Boy Scouts and its affiliates have dealt with multiple incidents that have focused continuous scrutiny on the organization, both for its membership policy and handling of sexual abuse claims.
This week a man sued a Boy Scouts council in Northern California alleging that, as a scout more than 30 years ago, he was sexually abused by his scout leader. He says that local and regional Boy Scouts officials knew the scoutmaster had had inappropriate contact with other boys and failed to act.
Last fall in Oregon, the Boys Scouts of America lost a sexual abuse case and was ordered to pay the plaintiffs nearly $20 million. The organization was forced to make public thousands of internal records informally known as "the perversion files," which detail alleged child molestations nationwide from the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s by more than 1,200 scoutmasters and other adult volunteers.
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