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Boy Scout leaders put off vote on gay membership

By Casey Wian and Michael Pearson, CNN
updated 2:40 PM EST, Wed February 6, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: "This issue is not a gay rights issue," Utah scout leader who opposes change says
  • "End this awful policy," the Human Rights Campaign urges Boy Scouts of America
  • The organization said last month it would consider changing its ban on openly gay members
  • Boy Scout leaders put off vote scheduled for Wednesday; it will now happen in May

Irving, Texas (CNN) -- Gays hoping to join the Boy Scouts will have to wait until at least May after the organization's executive board put off a vote on lifting its outright ban on openly homosexual scouts and troop leaders.

The board had been expected to vote Wednesday on a proposal to let local groups set their own policies, but said instead that it needs more time to get comment on the issue from its members.

"After careful consideration and extensive dialogue within the Scouting family, along with comments from those outside the organization, the volunteer officers of the Boy Scouts of America's National Executive Board concluded that due to the complexity of this issue, the organization needs time for a more deliberate review of its membership policy," the board said in a written statement.

The decision will now be made at the organization's annual meeting in May. About 1,400 members of the group's national council will take part during that gathering, the board said.

Land: Gays in Boy Scouts 'a catastrophe'
Boy Scouts of America is an organization that says it is focused on mentoring young men and helping them develop life skills. Here's a look at BSA by the numbers. (Source: Boy Scouts of America). Boy Scouts of America is an organization that says it is focused on mentoring young men and helping them develop life skills. Here's a look at BSA by the numbers. (Source: Boy Scouts of America).
Boy Scouts by the numbers
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Photos: Boy Scouts by the numbers Photos: Boy Scouts by the numbers
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In the meantime, the organization will "further engage representatives of Scouting's membership and listen to their perspectives and concerns."

Opinion: Ban on gays hurts Scouting

The decision disappointed critics who had hoped to see the organization end its ban despite a 2000 Supreme Court ruling saying it had the right to keep it.

"Every day that the Boy Scouts of America delay action is another day that discrimination prevails," said Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin. "Now is the time for action. Young Americans, gay and straight, are hurt by the inaction associated with today's news. The BSA leadership should end this awful policy once and for all, and open the proud tradition of Scouting to all."

Others hope the delay will provide time to lobby the Boy Scouts to scrap the plan.

"This issue is not a gay rights issue," said Utah scout leader Eric Montague. "It's a gender attraction issue and it's also a politics issue. As a local scout leader, I don't need to worry about gay rights -- that shouldn't be my role; that shouldn't be what I do. And to push that decision upon me is not the best way to go."

Conservative groups and some religious organizations have argued against making any change, saying it would dilute the Boy Scout message of morality and potentially destroy the organization.

The Boy Scouts announced last month that the organization would consider changing the policy, a sharp reversal of its previous support for excluding openly gay members and scout leaders.

The new policy would allow local leaders to decide "consistent with each organization's mission, principles or religious beliefs" whether to open troops they sponsor to openly gay people, the group said in a statement at the time.

The proposal comes more than a decade after a Supreme Court ruling that found the organization has the right to keep gays out, but also amid declining participation in the venerable American institution.

Membership in Boy Scouts has declined by about a third since 1999. About 2.7 million people now participate in scouting nationwide, with more than 70% of troops affiliated with a church or religious groups.

The organization has also endured frequent criticism from gay rights groups and other critics who say the Boy Scouts should not endorse discrimination.

Activists hail a watershed moment in gay rights movement

Among more recent controversies, the organization came under fire last year after Jennifer Tyrrell, an Ohio den leader, was dismissed by her local Boy Scout officials for being a lesbian.

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On Tuesday, Tyrell delivered a petition she said was signed by 1.4 million people supporting the change.

Before Wednesday's announcement of the delay, she said she was looking forward to the change, but added it would not go far enough.

"If this ban is lifted, it's a great first step," she said Wednesday on CNN's "Starting Point." "But it's still going to lead to kids being rejected. Families are still going to be turned away."

Brandy Pryde, a troop leader who participated in a prayer vigil outside the Boy Scouts headquarters Wednesday, said her church would pull support from scouting if the change goes through.

"What happens when we go camping and there's units that allow gays and homosexuals and there's units that don't, how are we going to keep them separated from those units and how are we going to instill in our kids Christian values and the biblical truth if that's allowed in our program?" she said.

A poll released Monday suggests the public is in favor of lifting the ban. The poll, conducted January 30 to February 4 by Quinnipiac University, found 55% of respondents favored lifting the ban. The school said 33% were opposed. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.3 percentage points.

President Barack Obama, who is honorary president of the national organization by virtue of his office, also supports opening troops to everyone.

On Wednesday, White House spokesman Jay Carney said the administration had no comment on the Boy Scouts decision.

"You know that the president believes the Boy Scouts is a valuable organization that has helped educate and build character in American boys for more than a century," Carney said. "He also, as you know, opposes discrimination in all forms. And as such, believes -- as he said just on Sunday -- that gay Americans ought to be able to participate in the Boy Scouts. But in terms of the process of their evaluation of their policies, I don't have a comment."

Conservative politicians and religious leaders have said that changing the policy would dilute the organization's voice and mission.

Scouting goes through a rough patch

Some, including former Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum, have argued the change could destroy scouting. Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention said the change could be a "catastrophe."

"What they've said to us and to other religious leaders is that they are doing this under pressure, and we're going to give people what basically amounts to a local option," Land said. "You can't have a local option of a core conviction."

Changing the policy against having openly gay leaders or Scouts "would be a grave mistake," the conservative Family Research Council and dozens of other groups said in a half-page ad in USA Today this week.

The message called on the Boy Scouts to "show courage" and "stand firm for timeless values."

"Every American who believes in freedom of thought and religious liberty should be alarmed by the attacks upon the Boy Scouts, who have had core convictions about morality for 100 years," the ad said. "Every Scout takes an oath to keep himself 'morally straight.' The Boy Scouts have every right to include sexual conduct in how they define that term."

But others say scouting is suffering because of its policy on gays, not despite it.

Eagle Scout Zach Wahls, founder of Scouts for Equality, says the ban has backfired.

When he was 10, Wahls' Cub Scout pack had to find a new home because the Boy Scouts of America's policy violated the nondiscrimination rule of the school district that hosted it.

"I was confused, because my den mother, Jackie -- who is my actual mother -- was a lesbian, and nobody in our unit had any issue with that," Wahls wrote. The pack managed to find another sponsor -- a nearby church -- but "some parents pulled their kids from the pack, uncomfortable with entrusting their sons to an organization they believed engaged in discrimination."

CNN's Casey Wian reported from Irving and Michael Pearson wrote and reported from Atlanta. CNN's Holly Yan, Catherine E. Shoichet and Devon Sayers also contributed to this report.

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