GRAPEVINE, Texas (BP) -- Delegates to the National Council of the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) Thursday (May 23) approved new membership guidelines which open the ranks of the organization to homosexual members. Young men who openly claim to be homosexual may now participate as Scouts.
The decision, the BSA leadership said in a statement, was based on "growing input from within the Scouting family." That input led to a national review of policy, or a "comprehensive listening exercise," resulting in a resolution to remove the restriction "denying membership to youth on the basis of sexual orientation alone."
Some 1,400 delegates to the National Council approved the change in membership standards by a margin of 61-39 percent, but changes to the adult leadership policy of the organization, which forbids homosexual Scout leaders, was not up for vote and remains in place. Rules on sexual misconduct, heterosexual and homosexual, also remain in place for Scouts and Scout leaders.
Wayne Brock, who leads the organization, said in a press conference that the decision has been made and it is now best "to move forward and it is time to stand together."
"America needs Scouting and everyone within Scouting needs to stay focused on that which unites us -- reaching and serving young people to grow into good, strong citizens," Brock said. He added that he believed good people can disagree but still work together.
Tico Perez, commissioner of the National Council, said at the press conference that changes to the adult leadership guidelines of the organization, which forbid homosexual Scout leaders, were not considered. Those policies, he said, "have served us well for 100 years."
That means that Scouts claiming to be homosexual will not be able to participate in Scouting as of their 18th birthday. Perez said "they realize the leadership role is a different role."
John Stemberger, who has waged a national campaign to keep the ban on homosexual Scouts in place through the website OnMyHonor.net, said the "most influential youth organization in America had turned a sad corner."
"The Boy Scouts of America have demonstrated that values are not timeless," Stemberger said in a statement after the vote. "The Boy Scouts are now teaching kids that when your values are no longer popular, change them."
Stemberger said BSA leaders had succumbed to the pressure of special interest groups by making the change to the membership policy. "The leaders of the Boy Scouts of America," he said, "make decisions like politicians placing their fingers in the air to see which way the wind is blowing."
Stemberger added that Thursday was the last day he would wear a Boy Scouts of American uniform. He said he plans to call a coalition together to discuss creating a new youth organization centered on biblical values, a call echoed by many religious leaders.
"We had hoped to keep sex and politics out of Scouting," Stemberger said.
"We grieve today not because we are leaving the Boy Scouts of America, but because the Boy Scouts left us." He believes the BSA can expect to lose no fewer than 200,000 members and $30 million in funding.
Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee President Frank Page, who had met with Scouting leaders and urged them to maintain the current policy, said he was "deeply saddened" that the BSA overturned its "constitutionally protected expressive message that homosexual behavior is incompatible with the principles enshrined in the Scout Oath and Scout Law.
"We know that the pressures exerted against the voting members of the 1,400 chartered organizations by homosexual activist groups have been unrelenting," Page said. "We are grateful for each voting member who voted in the minority, but our sadness for the Scouting organization as a whole cannot be overstated."
Page said the vote "ushers in a sea-change in the credibility of the Boy Scouts of America as a viable boys' organization for millions of Americans who believe strongly in the principles of biblical morality. To claim that the Boys Scouts is the nation's foremost youth program of character development and values-based leadership training suddenly rings hollow."
"We continue to pray for our country. We believe we are in desperate need of a genuine spiritual awakening that will transform lives through the power of the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ," Page said.
Southern Baptist Convention President Fred Luter called it "a sad day in the history of an organization that for years stood on Christian principles, particularly for the thousands of Southern Baptists who grew up as Boy Scouts like myself."
"My prayers," Luter said, "go out to the parents and churches who have been forced to make decisions about being a part of the Boy Scouts organization. As Southern Baptists, our commitment to the Word of God and Christian values must take priority over what is 'politically correct.'"
Southern Baptist ethicist Richard Land predicted a mass exodus of religious groups from the organization.
"Frankly, I can't imagine a Southern Baptist pastor who would continue to allow his church to sponsor a Boy Scout troop under these new rules," said Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. "I predict there will be a mass exodus of Southern Baptists and other conservative Christians from the Boy Scouts."
The "supposed compromise" satisfies no one and signals the BSA will only become more inclusive of gays, Land said.
"The supposed compromise takes away their best defense. In the year 2000, the Supreme Court ruled the Boy Scouts did not have to have homosexual Scoutmasters because the homosexual lifestyle was contrary to the core values of Scouts. If you're going to allow openly gay Scouts to participate in Scouting, then it's no longer a core value," Land said. "And so what we're going to see now is a flood of litigation by pro-homosexual groups arguing that the continuing ban on gay Scoutmasters is … prejudice and they will win. They will win, because the Boy Scouts have stripped themselves of their defense the Supreme Court used."
Land advised Southern Baptist churches to withdraw their support of Scout troops and support the Royal Ambassadors ministry to boys. (See earlier Baptist Press article about RAs.)
A.J. Smith, president of the Association of Baptists for Scouting, echoed Land's sentiment and said he is more concerned about the message sent to young people today. He said the organization had abandoned 100 years of teaching about "solid moral values."
"The BSA is now sending a mixed message to youth and the nation," Smith said. "On the one hand they are saying that sexual activity among Scout-aged youth is contrary to Scouting virtues, and on the other hand they are opening the door to youth members regardless of their self-identified sexual orientation. For Baptist churches with Scouting units, this presents a unique challenge.
The statement from the BSA leadership said the new membership policy is effective Jan. 1, 2014, allowing the organization enough time to implement the policy and communicate it to its 116,000 units. The statement also said the organization would not be distracted from its mission by a "single, divisive and unresolved societal issue." Leaders said there are no plans to review the issue further.
Russell Moore, president-elect of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said the decision lands the "sexual revolution's onward march" squarely in the middle of Scouting.
"Few, if any, are suggesting the Boy Scouts kick out boys based on their particular temptations. We don't, and shouldn't do that in our churches, much less in the Scouts," Moore told Baptist Press. "But this change is more than this. It doesn't speak in terms of temptations but in terms of the claiming of a sexually politicized identity as morally neutral."
Local Scouting troops sponsored by evangelical, Roman Catholic or Latter-day Saints congregations, Moore said, "will be pressured to mute a definition of 'morally straight' that includes a sexuality intended only for the lifelong one-flesh union of a man and a woman in marriage."
"Depending on how radically the BSA applies this new policy to local troops, I suspect many will be seeking an alternative to the Boy Scouts to train up boys toward a life of virtue," Moore said.
The revision of the membership policy "highlights how important it is for churches to speak clearly of both our love for all people, including our gay and lesbian neighbors, and the importance of God's design for human sexuality for human flourishing," Moore said. "The Gospel doesn't define us, as the culture does, in terms of our wants and desires. The Gospel addresses us, all of us, as sinners and calls us to a life of freedom and cross-bearing sacrifice."
The culture is confused, Moore said, as it always is in a fallen world.
"Our voluntary associations, even the most venerable of them, are increasingly ambiguous about what it means to live a good life rooted in the permanent things," Moore said. "Our churches cannot, and will not, share that ambiguity."
The BSA statement ended by acknowledging the different opinions held on the matter of homosexuality, but said children were "better off when they are in Scouting."
Gregory Tomlin is a writer in Fort Worth, Texas. Baptist Press staff members Michael Foust, Diana Chandler and Erin Roach contributed to this article.
To view the Boy Scouts of America statement in full, go to: http://www.scouting.org/sitecore/content/MembershipStandards/Resolution/results.aspx. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).