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Wednesday, February 6,2013

Gay scouts

Lansing scouting, religious leaders support making optional the ban on gay Boy Scouts

by Sam Inglot
For years, assistant scoutmaster Brad Shafer of Okemos has advocated an end to the Boy Scouts of America’s ban on gay members. He’s hoping for progress today when the national organization votes on whether to make such a ban an option for local troops. Nationally, the BSA has been facing mounting pressure from corporate sponsors and gay rights activists to change the policy. 

Should BSA make the ban optional, several others in the local scouting and religious community will join Shafer in welcoming gay scouts. No one interviewed for this story would outright oppose allowing gay scouts, though some local scoutmasters and the Catholic Diocese of Lansing declined to comment until the national organization decides. 

Shafer was haunted by a 2000 U.S. Supreme Court decision that allowed BSA to continue its discriminatory banning of gay Boy Scouts and leaders — he felt he had to do something about it. 

“I knew pretty well what I wanted to do because of my background as a civil rights attorney. I wanted to — as strange as this sounds — sue the Boy Scouts over their anti-gay policy,” Shafer said. 

He added that the vast majority of scout leaders in the area he’s talked to support lifting the ban. An Eagle Scout, Shafer is an assistant scoutmaster for Troop 109 in Okemos, which with 80 members is one of the largest troops in the area.

Through his wood badge training — the highest level of training in Boy Scouts — he advocated changing the policy. 

Five “ticket items,” or service projects, are needed to complete wood badge training, which are supposed to help both society and scouting. One of the requirements is a diversity ticket item, Shafer said. 

“What my offer was at that time was exactly what scouting is looking at now, which is let the chartering organizations make the call,” he said.

Shafer never actually filed the lawsuit, but he prepared the lawsuit on behalf of a scout in Ann Arbor and sent it to the BSA as a “threat,” he said. It’s around that time two years ago when the Boy Scouts began to look at their discrimination policy and decided last year to uphold it. 

Shafer believes the local option is a good compromise. He said a blanket policy allowing gay people into any troop could cause major upheaval from the more conservative churches that charter scouting troops. 

For God and Scouting

Religion has a key place in the scouting tradition. The oaths of all three branches of scouting — Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts and Venturing Crews — contain a promise “to do my duty to God.” Religious groups make up 70 percent of all BSA charter organizations. Charter organizations provide meeting space, occasional funding and input on leadership to troops they sponsor. However, troop and charter relationships can vary from unit to unit. 

The Rev. Jeanne Randels is the pastor at Okemos Community Church, the charter organization for Troop 109. She said she would be “delighted” if the BSA voted to lift the ban.  

“It’s about time,” she said. “They’re taking a step in the right direction,and that’s a good thing.” 

The Rev. Zachary Bartels is the pastor at Judson Memorial Baptist Church in Lansing. He said if Troop 33, the Boy Scout troop his church charters, wanted to allow gay members into the group, he wouldn’t see a problem with it.  

“I don’t see that affecting anything,” he said. “I’d be really surprised if it did.”

Some religious groups, like Congregation Shaarey Zedek, a synagogue in East Lansing and their Boy Scout troop, Troop 180, took a stand against the ban years ago. 

“I think it’s wonderful and well overdue,” Rabbi Amy Bigman said. “Our troop and synagogue took a stand many years ago against the policy of the Boy Scouts of America in regards to not allowing homosexuals in the troop or as leaders.”

The scoutmasters for Troops 33 and 108 said they didn’t want to comment on whether they would lift the ban until the BSA made their decision and troop leadership had a chance to discuss it. 

Phone calls to Lansing area Catholic churches that charter Boy Scout groups were punted on to the Catholic Diocese of Lansing. Michael Diebold, diocesan communications director, said they would not make a statement until the BSA made its decision.  

Both Bigman and Randels wanted to see the BSA take the decision a step further and create a national policy against discrimination. However, they believe the same as Shafer, that a policy allowing gay people into any troop could anger some of the more conservative chartering organizations out there. 

Creating an inclusive community

Scout leaders agree: Membership is declining and the policy banning gays is partly to blame. Some believe that opening the doors to gay scouts and leaders could increase membership. 

“It’s no secret. Membership has been declining for quite awhile,” said Chris LaMarche, 20, an Eagle Scout and Michigan State University student. “It’s video games, it’s kids not being outdoors as much and sport commitments, but another contributing factor is this policy banning gay people.” 

LaMarche said his best friend in high school came out to him while they both were in Scouts. LaMarche said they had to keep it a secret or his friend risked getting kicked out. “I know that, at least in Michigan, you’ll find that story repeated over and over again,” he said. 

Shafer can relate to LaMarche’s story. He’s had several scouts in his troop approach him over the years and talk to him in confidence “as a lawyer” who told him they were gay. 

Steve Easley, 61, is an assistant scoutmaster for Troop 109 at Okemos Community Church, along with Shafer. He believes the ban conflicts with the goals and values of scouting. He and LeMarche are both involved with Inclusive Scouting, an online Boy Scout community that has been advocating change to the policy. 

Easley also sees the BSA’s proposal to make the ban optional as a necessity, both for membership and funding purposes.  

“In my personal perspective, Boy Scouts have struggled ever since this became an issue,” he said. “Corporations and people with money have decided that they don’t want to support Boy Scouts because they didn’t like their stance on it. It’s been divisive already.” He called making the ban a local option “the best compromise” for the situation. 

Major corporations have stopped funding the national BSA because of their policy. Companies like Merck, UPS and Intel have pulled their charitable donations to the BSA in recent months.

Shafer said the discriminatory policy has caused bad press and charity relations for the organization. He referred to the case of Jennifer Tyrrell of Bridgeport, Ohio, a former leader of her son’s Cub Scout pack who was kicked out because she was a lesbian. 

“You’ve had leaders quit over this, you’ve certainly had leaders fired over this, and it’s not making very good press for scouting,” he said. “It’s so difficult to get good adult leadership in scouting and to throw somebody out because she’s a lesbian — it’s ridiculous.”

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