NEW YORK — The Boy Scouts of America's proposed move away from its no-gays membership policy has outraged some longtime admirers, gratified many critics and raised intriguing questions about the iconic organization's future.
Will the Scouts now be split between troops with gay-friendly policies and those that keep the ban? What will a National Jamboree be like if it brings together these disparate groups with conflicting ideologies? Will the churches long devoted to scouting now be torn by internal debate over the choices that may lie ahead?
A top official of the Southern Baptist Convention, whose conservative churches sponsor hundreds of Scout units that embrace the ban, was among those alarmed that the BSA is proposing to allow sponsoring organizations to decide for themselves whether to admit gays as Scouts and adult leaders.
"We understand that we are now a minority, that it is not popular to have biblical values, not popular to take stands that seem intolerant," said Frank Page, president of the SBC's executive committee. "This is going to lead to a disintegration of faith-based values."
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Page had been scheduled to speak in July at the Scouts' National Jamboree in West Virginia, and he's now apprehensive there could be conflict as troops with differing policies converge. Asked if he might decide not to speak, Page said he would pray about it.
Of the more than 110,000 scouting units across the U.S., nearly 70 percent are chartered by religious organizations. Some were pleased by the proposed change, others were troubled.
Triggering the angst was the Boy Scouts' announcement Monday that it was considering replacing its long-standing ban on gays with a policy that would let troop sponsors make their own decisions. The change is expected to be discussed next week at a meeting of the BSA's national executive board.
The ban on gays, which the U.S. Supreme Court upheld as constitutional in 2000, has provoked a multitude of protests over the years. Numerous Scout councils and Scout leaders have expressed disagreement with the policy, and some corporate donors last year said they were suspending gifts to the BSA until the policy changed.
One of these companies, New Jersey-based drug-maker Merck & Co., said it was pleased the BSA was reconsidering its position, but declined further comment.
In Durham, N.C., the proposed change prompted some careful moral calculations by the Rev. Allen Jones, associate minister of Antioch Baptist Church and scoutmaster of the church-sponsored Troop 481.
"Personally, I believe homosexuality is a sin and you can go to hell for it," Jones said. "But the Gospel also speaks to the inclusion and acceptance of people with a cross to bear. If someone openly gay comes in and wants to participate, then that's between them and God. We're not going to discriminate."
Two of the biggest sponsors are the Mormons' Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, whose units serve roughly 420,000 scouts, and the Roman Catholic Church, which serves about 280,000 Scouts. Mormon and Catholic leaders, who have signaled support for the no-gays policy in the past, declined any official response to Monday's announcement of the possible change.
"We've had 100 years of a very conservative approach to scouting," said Kay Godfrey, a spokesman for Boy Scouts in the Great Salt Lake Council. "A major shift along these lines could change the face of scouting, but we'll have to just wait and see."
Scott Barr, a scoutmaster in McKinney, Texas, said his Mormon-chartered troop would likely wait for guidance from the national Mormon church.
"I don't know what the position would be," said Barr, who's been involved in scouting for 25 years. "I wouldn't even dare to speculate."
The Assemblies of God, one of the largest Pentecostal denominations, said it was "saddened and disappointed" by the proposed change.
"Homosexual behavior contradicts biblical teachings and God's created order for the family and human relationships," said the Rev. George O. Wood, the denomination's leader. "We pray BSA will give careful consideration to this matter and hold firm to the beliefs that have made it a strong and influential organization for more than 100 years."
The United Methodist Church, the second largest sponsor of Scout units after the Mormons, expressed support for the change — saying it was in line with church policy opposing discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
News of the proposed change came just ahead of "Scout Sunday" this weekend — an annual event in which churches across the nation have special services and luncheons to honor Scouts.
Frank Page, the Southern Baptist leader, said that proposing the policy change so close to Scout Sunday is causing a lot of consternation.
"Churches have not had time to think and pray and consider this," he said.