Boy Scouts’ ranks drop after year of policy change

NOMAAN MERCHANT, Associated Press

DALLAS (AP) — The Boy Scouts of America said Wednesday that it lost 6 percent of its membership after an often-bruising year in which it announced it would accept openly gay boys for the first time, over the objections of some participants who eventually left the organization.

The organization’s national leadership voted in May to accept openly gay boys for the first time, while continuing to exclude gay leaders. That policy change, while lauded by gay-rights groups, angered conservatives and some members who consider homosexuality a sin and a violation of Scouting values.

BSA spokesman Deron Smith said Wednesday that the 2013 decline could partially be attributed to that change, but also other issues that have caused slight declines in membership over the last decade.

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“There are many factors that go into a family’s decision to join Scouting and it’s impossible to point to any single factor that influences our membership numbers,” Smith said in an email. “This includes, but is not limited to, the limited amount of discretional time and parents wanting relevant programs for their kids.”

With nearly 2.5 million youth and almost 1 million adults, Scouting remains a significant force in communities across the United States, even though its membership has slowly, but steadily declined over the last decade.

The new policy says youths cannot be removed from the ranks of the Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts or Venturers program solely due to sexual orientation. About 60 percent of the 1,400 voting members of BSA’s National Council approved the change at a meeting in the Dallas-Fort Worth suburbs, near BSA’s national headquarters in Irving, Texas.

BSA made the change as it faced mounting public pressure in a nation that is growing more accepting of gays and gay marriage. While the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints backed BSA, the Southern Baptist Convention expressed its disapproval and left it to individual churches to decide whether to remain with the Boy Scouts.

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A small number of Scouts eventually left over disagreements about homosexuality. Some went to Trail Life USA, an organization set up after the change by conservatives and Christian groups. Trail Life claimed about 425 “pre-chartered” groups around the country late last year. It has not said how many youth members it has.

BSA, which is a century-old organization, has faced a longer-term challenge to stay relevant with today’s youth and their parents. Smith said the organization recorded a 4 percent membership decline between 2011 and 2012, with similar declines in some of the years during the last decade.

He pointed to several successes in 2013 for the Boy Scouts, which opened a new permanent site for its annual jamboree of Scouts from around the world and was featured on a National Geographic television series.

“Last year was a milestone year for the BSA in many ways,” he said.

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He added that accepting openly gay boys “allows us to serve more kids.”

Already, one openly gay Scout who was denied his Eagle award due to his sexual orientation has been allowed to achieve Scouting’s highest rank. Pascal Tessier of Kensington, Md., was named an Eagle Scout this week.

Zach Wahls, an Eagle Scout who founded the advocacy group Scouts for Equality, said he’s heard of no incidents of potential discrimination since the policy went into effect. He said suggestions last year of a mass exodus due to the policy change appear to have been overblown.

“We believe in the importance of Scouting,” Wahls said. “And we look forward to working with the BSA after all this is behind us to look for ways to boost membership again.”

But John Stemberger, Trail Life’s founder, accused the Scouts of hiding the true impact of the policy and predicted BSA would eventually open its doors to gay leaders as well.

“There’s not a whole lot of people that are calling it straight in terms of what the policy is and what it does,” he said.