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Remember when Scouts shared a sleeping bag just to stay warm?

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Organization faces challenges no matter what it decides about gays

Thursday, January 31, 2013 - 12:01 am

As a Boy Scout, I and a friend once spent a long, cold night sharing a sleeping bag.

We were just trying to stay warm – not make a political point.

Unfortunately, the Boy Scouts of America can make no such disclaimer in the wake of this week's announcement that its national executive board will consider ending the Scouts' 103-year-old ban on gays. Whatever happens, the decision will create problems for a generally exemplary organization that has more than 110,000 units across the U.S. – 70 percent chartered by religious organizations.

“We're going to get a reaction one way or another,” said John Gliot, scout executive of the Anthony Wayne Area Council, which serves about 6,200 Scouts between the ages of 6 and 20 in 11 area counties. If Gliot has a personal opinion, he's wisely keeping it to himself, since the local organization is bound to follow policy set at the national level.

And because that policy could allow each organization to establish its own admission guidelines – many of the 270 organizations in this area are also church-affiliated – Gliot knows opinions and practices are likely to differ dramatically.

“We're taking a wait-and-see approach until we know how the vote goes,” said Gliot, who has heard from both sides since news of the possible policy change broke this week. “But I do think about it, playing out all the scenarios in my head. We've been around 100 years, but this is new ground for us.”

Politically speaking, replacing a national one-size-fits-all mandate with the freedom to establish policy at the chapter level makes sense. Some organizations, including local United Way chapters, have withheld support for Scouting because of its alleged homophobia. If the policy change would increase support without undermining local control, who could argue?

Perhaps the estimated 30 or 40 Catholic churches in the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend that sponsor Scout chapters. Although officials have not yet discussed the Scouts' possible policy change, “the church's teaching (on homosexual behavior) is pretty clear,” Communications Director Sean McBride said.

So let us assume that Catholic chapters and others will continue to exclude gays, just as some civic groups, schools and churches with a more elastic view of Scripture will welcome them. Will everyone then live happily ever after?

Anyone who believes that deserves a merit badge in wishful thinking.

For one thing, gay-rights advocates aren't about to rest until all units are forced to open their doors to everyone.

For another, Gliot conceded that “integrated” units could pose challenges during camping trips and other activities. Only a very open-minded parent – or a very clueless one – would view sharing a sleeping bag in quite the same way I did.

And even if harmony prevailed at the chapter level, the National Jamboree attracts more than 40,000 Scouts from around the country. Would individual chapters be willing to put aside their differences should some include gays and others exclude them?

This is not, contrary to popular opinion, a matter of “rights.” As the Supreme Court affirmed in 2000, gays do not have a right to become Scouts. As a private organization, it is free to establish its own membership guidelines.

But cutting the baby in two worked only for Solomon. About 280,000 Scouts nationwide are in chapters linked to the Catholic Church and 420,000 in Mormon chapters – churches that have signaled the no-gays policy in the past.

But this is not really a religious or moral issue, either, despite the Scouts' pledge to serve God and country and stated principle of being “morally straight” (how's that for irony). Scouting often requires a certain degree of contact and even intimacy, and if the potential temptations posed by the proposed policy shift are more imagined than real, they could nevertheless cause Scouting to be less attractive to some parents and boys than in the past.

In fact, parents concerned with liberal influence on the national Girl Scouts organization in 1995 created an alternative group. Today, the American Heritage Girls' membership numbers more than 18,000, many of them Catholics, and is growing fast. Could a conservative alternative be created for boys depending on what happens next week?

“Who knows?” McBride said.

It would be nice if so-called progressives would take that approach, too, instead of constantly trying to reshape (and thereby undermine) traditional organizations in their own image.

Happily, the Scout motto is "Be prepared." Good advice for those who value the organization's time-tested ideals more than contemporary politics.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com, or call him at 461-8355.