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Boy Scouts to make decision on gays this week — or are they?

Published: Wednesday, July 1 2015 11:06 a.m. MDT

The National Executive Board, rarely mentioned through its years of volunteer service to Scouting, has been awash in controversy ever since it was announced early last week that board members would be voting on the proposed change. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News) The National Executive Board, rarely mentioned through its years of volunteer service to Scouting, has been awash in controversy ever since it was announced early last week that board members would be voting on the proposed change. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

The Great Salt Lake Council, one of the largest Scout councils in the nation, has organized a coalition of 33 Scout councils representing more than half a million boys to ask the National Executive Board of the Boy Scouts of America to delay the vote on a controversial proposal to eliminate its national policy prohibiting homosexuals from joining or leading Scout troops.

In a message posted on its website Monday, the council expressed its “concern about the pace at which such actions are being taken.”

“Time must be allowed for accurate polling data to be collected from stakeholders at all levels and all areas in an unbiased way,” the message read. “The voices of existing chartered partners and financial contributors must be heard alongside those of our volunteer leaders and the parents who entrust their children to us.”

Council spokesman Kay Godfrey didn't identify the other councils in the coalition because he did not have permission from them to do so. But reports circulated throughout the weekend that heavy pressure was being exerted on the national board to delay the vote, scheduled to be taken Wednesday during meetings at national Scout headquarters in Irving, Texas, this week.

For many, the very future of Scouting is at stake.

The National Executive Board, rarely mentioned through its years of volunteer service to Scouting, has been awash in controversy ever since it was announced early last week that board members would be voting on the proposed change. Some, like the editorial board of the Washington Post, are urging the national BSA board to make the change. But others are predicting a “mass exodus” of traditional support for the Boy Scouts — particularly from religious groups that have long formed the foundational underpinning for the entire Scouting structure — should the proposed policy change be adopted.

BSA spokesman Deron Smith said the organization wouldn’t take an official position on the proposal. But he did outline the process through which such changes are made in Scouting national policy.

The National Executive Board, he said, consists of the national president, regional presidents and between 60 and 70 regularly elected board members. Although Smith declined to provide the names of all of the current board members (“We do not share specific information regarding members of the National Executive Board,” he said), he did confirm that President Thomas S. Monson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints “is a long-standing and valued member of the National Executive Board.”

The LDS Church has sponsored Scouting as an officially endorsed activity for its young men since 1913. It was the first religious group to make Scouting part of its religious ministry, and it remains the largest single sponsor of Scouting in the United States, with more than one-third of all Scout troops in the U.S. under LDS sponsorship.

Free Republic, a conservative Internet forum, has obtained and published a list of the current BSA National Executive Board members. The list includes David L. Beck, general president of the LDS Church’s Young Men organization, as the other Utahn currently serving on the board. Also serving are such prominent business leaders as AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson, Ernst & Young CEO James Turley and ExxonMobil CEO Rex W. Tillerson. Mitt Romney and former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates are among notable former board members.

BSA bylaws require the board to hold an annual meeting — this year’s annual meeting is scheduled for May 22-24 in Grapevine, Texas. The board usually meets at least one other time during the year to consider important matters of business. It is one of these additional meetings that is under way in Irving, where the proposed policy change would be considered by the full board — assuming the vote is not postponed until May’s annual meeting.

“Typically, an officer of the board submits a resolution at the board meeting and a vote is taken,” Smith said. But in the case of the upcoming vote on the proposed policy change, the Christian Post reports there have also been pre-meeting meetings with a number of key religious officials and board members, including representatives from the LDS Church (with about 38 percent of all chartered Scouting units, according to BSA statistics), the Catholic Church (8.5 percent) and the Southern Baptist Convention (4.1 percent).

“(Chief Scout Executive) Wayne Brock visited with me last week, signaling the possibility they would consider this proposal at their February board meeting,” Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee President and CEO Frank Page told reporter Alex Murashko. “He specifically asked the Southern Baptist Convention not to oppose this move. Of course, I refused to make this concession.”

LDS and Catholic officials declined comment on the proposed changes, although LDS spokesman Michael Purdy acknowledged that “the church is aware that BSA is contemplating a change in its leadership policy.”

With almost 70 percent of all Scouting units chartered to faith-based organizations, local Scout officials around the nation are concerned about the long-term implications of the proposed policy change, including divisiveness or even the termination of Scouting relationships, regardless of how the voting concludes.

“I don’t know exactly how the LDS Church is going to respond to this,” said Godfrey, who indicated that “99 percent” of the units in the Great Salt Lake Council are affiliated with the LDS Church. “I know they’ve been brought into the discussion. But we’ll have to see how our major institution is going to respond before we know how it will affect us.”

Although BSA officials have not been available for interviews on the subject, spokesman Smith has been responding to media questions via email in an attempt to explain what the proposed policy change would mean to the venerable 113-year-old institution.

“If passed, this would mean there would no longer be any national membership policy regarding sexual orientation, but the chartered organizations that oversee and deliver Scouting will accept membership and select leaders consistent with their organization’s mission, principles and religious beliefs,” Smith said in an emailed response to questions from the Deseret News.

“The Boy Scouts would not, under any circumstances, dictate a position to units, members or parents,” Smith continued. “Nor would it require any chartered organization to act in ways inconsistent with that organization’s mission, principles or religious beliefs.”

All of which sounds great on the surface, said Matthew Staver, Kelly Shackelford and Gary McCaleb of the Liberty Institute, a nonprofit legal group that focuses on religious liberty issues. But in a letter to Scout executives dated last Friday, the three attorneys warned of “unintended consequences” to the proposed change. By shifting responsibility for the decision on whether or not to admit gay Scouts and Scouters, they said, BSA will open local councils to “new lawsuits under antidiscrimination laws and policies,” since they would no longer be under the legal protection of a U.S. Supreme Court decision (Boy Scouts of America v. Dale) that supported the rights of the Boy Scouts of America “as an organization” to “define its own mission and its views regarding morality and the values BSA seeks to instill in boys and young men.”

“While it is possible many of these local units would prevail in their lawsuits,” the three lawyers wrote, “many others might not, and the costs of litigation in either event would be nothing short of crippling for BSA.”

The Supreme Court decision to which they refer was issued in 2000. Seven months ago a special committee of Scout leaders and volunteers reviewed the policy and concluded that it is the “absolute best” thing for the organization.

Since then, however, several large corporate financial sponsors of Scouting — including the Intel Foundation and UPS — have either withdrawn their financial support or indicated they are reconsidering their support for the organization based on the policy.

That support has been significant. According to 2010 foundation tax filings, Intel’s contribution to Scouting was $700,000, and UPS’s was nearly $200,000. Two high-powered and influential members of the National Executive Board, AT&T’s Stephenson and Ernst & Young’s Turley, have publicly stated their intention to work within the organization to end the ban.

“As I have done in leading Ernst & Young to being a most inclusive organization, I intend to continue to work from within the BSA board to actively encourage dialogue and sustainable progress,” Turley said.

Corporate donations provide a meaningful part of the BSA’s annual operating budget. According to the organization’s Annual Report for 2011 — the most recent year for which figures are available — “contributions and bequests” totaled just over $61 million, down from $65.4 million the previous year.

By way of comparison, fees — including registration fees for individual Scouts and Scouting units, from the troop to the district to the council — accounted for $96.4 million in 2011, also down from the previous year’s $118.6 million.

In addition to his corporate connections, Turley is also a member of President Barack Obama’s Export Council, which suggests the additional possibility of influence on this decision by the Obama administration. Like other U.S. presidents since Scouting was federally chartered in 1916, President Obama is the honorary president of the Boy Scouts of America.

Last August, he and his presidential campaign opponent, Mitt Romney, both expressed opposition to “this policy that discriminates on the basis of sexual orientation." And during a CBS News interview aired just before Sunday night’s Super Bowl, Obama repeated his feeling that gays should be allowed to be Scout leaders.

Officially, however, Smith said, “we have not discussed this issue with (the Obama administration),” noting that regardless of his position, the honorary BSA president does not have a vote on issues before the National Board.

Smith also takes issue with those who see the proposed policy change as a capitulation to special-interest groups.

“The decision to discuss the policy is the result of a long-standing dialogue within the Scouting family,” Smith said. “Last year we realized the policy was causing some volunteers and chartered organizations that oversee and deliver the program to act in conflict with their missions, principles or religious beliefs.”

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