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A friend of mine involved with the Boy Scouts of America recently received a questionnaire from them asking about BSA policy toward gay scouts and leaders. Some of the basic questions about allowing out folks to join and to remain were no brainers for him. He hesitated, however, when it came to the relationship between the Boy Scouts and sponsoring houses of worship. As he framed it:

All BSA troops are sponsored by a local church. The church gives space to a troop to hold its meetings. If a sponsor church has a position of oppostion to homosexuality, should it be able to refuse to allow openly gay leaders or openly gay scouts? This question was hard for me – I am a member of a church that does not exclude based on sexual orientation, and I personally support full rights for all people. I also support freedom of religion and religious beliefs, even when I strongly disagree. Should the BSA have different policies in different churches depending on the doctrines of the sponsor church? What if there was another troop nearby that allowed openly gay leaders or scouts; should one church be able to exclude? What if the one church that had a policy of exclusion was the only option for a scout within a reasonable distance of home? Building on this scenario of a church sponsoring a troop where the church opposed homosexuality, if a scout in a troop was from a background – religious, cultural, personal – where he strongly opposed homosexuality, and the BSA allowed openly homosexual leaders and scouts, would/should that scout have to leave the BSA?

I responded with a suggested letter from the BSA to the churches: “Dear Sponsoring House of Worship, We thank you again for your generous sponsorship of the Boy Scouts of America Troop XXX. For years boys in your area have had the opportunity to develop their ability to make ethical and moral choices based on the values of the Scout Oath and Law. We hope we can continue in this beneficial partnership. As you know, the BSA has recently decided that it is in line with our values to no longer discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation. As a result, all of our troops accept scouts and leaders of all orientations. We understand that your community might in good conscience have come to a different conclusion for your faith community. We hope that just as you welcomed our troop regardless of the differing religious beliefs of our scouts and leaders, you will continue to welcome us based regardless of the differing sexual orientations of our scouts and leaders. Sincerely, [BSA leadership]”

The point would be to underline that the local churches (mosques, synagogues, etc.) often hold different standards for their congregation than they do for groups meeting in their spaces. Presumably practicing Jews, Muslims, Catholics, etc. would not be welcomed as members of the local Baptist Church, for example, but as scouts they are welcome to use the church basement. Perhaps the houses of worship could see their way to a similar stance on potentially LGBT scouts and leaders. If, however, a house of worship says they cannot allow a troop that has out scouts, I think the BSA has to honor their (new) commitment to welcoming LGBT folks, and say to the house of worship, “Thank you for your open dialogue on this issue, and for your sponsorship over these years. We will be looking for a new sponsor at this point, but we hope we can work together again in the future.”

The BSA is not in this case infringing at all on freedom of religion. It is one organization adhering to its policies, derived from its mission and values as it sees them, discussing the use of space with another organization proceding similarly. Neither has legal authority over the other. Also, I do not think the presence or absence of a nearby welcoming sponsor should change the BSAs policy. If the BSA would not say that a church could sponsor a troop on the condition that did not allow practicing Jews, or non-whites, if there were a religiously or racially open sponsor nearby, then it should not take this stance regarding sexual orientation.

Regarding a scout who strongly opposed homosexuality, I would suggest following the policy of public schools and the U.S. military – you can believe what you wish, but your actions, including your speech, need to be respectful. The religious parallel again is instructive. You may believe that your fellow scout is going to hell because he has not accepted Jesus as his personal Lord and Savior, but in the context of the troop we expect you to treat him with respect.

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