To Herb Williams of Santa Rosa, the Boy Scouts of America returned to its roots with Monday’s landmark decision to allow gay adult leaders in the 105-year-old organization that has enrolled more than 114 million youth members.
When Williams, a 79-year-old political consultant, earned his Eagle rank in 1954, the Scout Oath’s reference to keeping “morally straight” meant “to be a good man, to be honest.”
“It had nothing to do with sexuality,” said Williams, former president of the Boy Scouts’ Redwood Empire Council who now serves as vice president for district operations in the council’s territory of Sonoma and Mendocino counties. The phrase shifted in the 1960s to mean “not gay,” he said, referring to a distinction that no longer officially matters.
The Boy Scouts’ national executive board, composed of 71 civic, corporate and church leaders, ended the organization’s ban on openly gay adult leaders with 79 percent of those who participated in a telephone meeting Monday voting in favor, the New York Times reported.
As the national board voted Monday, about 200 Cub Scouts from around Northern California were attending summer camp at Camp Royaneh near Cazadero, run by the Scouts’ San Francisco Bay Area Council.
Jason Lewis, director of support services for the council, referred questions about the policy on gay leaders to the Boy Scouts of America’s official statement announcing the change.
That statement and remarks from BSA leaders struck a forward-looking tone.
“For far too long this issue has divided and distracted us,” said the BSA’s president, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates. “Now it’s time to unite behind our shared belief in the extraordinary power of Scouting to be a force for good.”
Monday’s resolution also barred discrimination based on sexual orientation in all Boy Scout offices and for all paid jobs, a step that could head off looming lawsuits in New York, Colorado and other states, the newspaper said.
Williams, who joined Scouting in 1948, said he was one of many adult leaders who pushed to dissolve the organization’s gay prohibitions, starting with the national council’s vote in 2013 to allow gay youths — but not adults — to wear Scout uniforms. He came home from that session weary but ecstatic, having cast a vote to allow those youth in Scouting, and said on Monday that acceptance of gay Scout leaders was the completion of a “two-step” process, likening it to a dance.
Williams’ son, Army Staff Sgt. Jesse Williams, also an Eagle Scout, once told his father that a member of his combat team had identified himself as gay and that Jesse Williams, who was killed in Iraq in 2007 at age 25, considered him the most able soldier in the unit. The U.S. military rescinded its ban on openly gay service members in September 2011.
Had the Scouts’ national council maintained the ban on gay adult leaders, Williams said he and others would “go back to the drawing board because we’re not done.”
John Carriger of Healdsburg, the current Redwood Empire council president, also hailed Monday’s decision, noting that the shift to full equality for gays had been “a long painful road for the Boy Scouts of America.” Strong objections to allowing gay participation came from some Christian denominations, he said.
Faith-based organizations dominate Scouting, sponsoring units that serve 1.58 million youths, or 65 percent of the national group’s 2.4 million members. Two faiths that consider homosexuality a sin — the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Catholic Church — sponsor 437,160 and 259,297 youths, respectively, accounting for 29 percent of Scout youth.
In 2000, when the U.S. Supreme Court considered whether to allow gay leaders to serve in the Boy Scouts, the Mormon church threatened to withdraw from Scouting if it were to happen. The high court ruled that the Boy Scouts of America, as a private organization, had the right to ban homosexuals.
In a bid to gain consent from conservative religious groups, Monday’s vote allowed church-sponsored Scout units to select leaders who agree with their moral principles. No such latitude was granted to civic or educational organizations that sponsor Scout units.
Scouting and the Mormon Church have maintained a “close relationship” for 100 years, and every congregation — called a ward or branch — maintains a Scouting unit, said Ray Henderson, president of the Santa Rosa Stake, which includes 10 wards with about 100 boys involved in Scouting. Many of the units include youths who are not church members, he said.
“There are a lot of consistent values that we hold,” Henderson said, referring to the Scouts and the Mormon Church. Scouting instills “adequate moral and civil grounding,” enabling youths to “grow into men who can contribute to their communities,” he said.
Two weeks ago, the Mormon Church said in an official statement that any resolution adopted by the Boy Scouts regarding leadership in Scouting “must continue to affirm” the church’s right to select its own leaders.
On Monday, the church said it was “deeply troubled” by the Boy Scouts’ action and said its own leaders would need to examine their century-long association with Scouting.
The admission of openly gay leaders “is inconsistent with the doctrines of the Church and what have traditionally been the values of the Boy Scouts of America,” the church statement said.
Scouting membership declined by 6 percent after the vote to permit gay youths in 2013 and fell again by 7 percent last year, the New York Times said.
Carriger, a former Cub Scout and adult leader for about 30 years, said the Redwood Empire council has maintained what amounts to a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on gays for the past four years. “We do not discriminate against homosexuals, bisexuals or anybody else,” he said.
Matters relating to sexuality are “basically a forbidden topic” at Scout meetings, camps and other events, he said. “That’s for churches and families to teach.”
Carriger said he assumes there “probably always were” gay Scouts and adult leaders in local units, but they “stayed under the radar.”
Petaluma real estate agent Steven Cozza, who launched a campaign against Scouting’s exclusion of gays as a teenager in the late 1990s, said Monday’s action was “a dream come true for America.”
Cozza, who attained Eagle Scout rank with his Petaluma troop and later competed as a professional bicycle racer, said the new Scout policy was “a step forward for social justice” and one that would make Scouting “a better, stronger organization” by allowing all youths and adults to participate.
“All the things in the Scout oath and law are now truthful,” he said.