When I became an Eagle Scout four years ago, nobody knew I was gay—I was still in the process of accepting it myself. If I had told anyone, I would not have been given the award, despite a decade of involvement with scouting, countless hours with dozens of volunteers installing a garden at my elementary school, and more than a hundred nights camping in the California wilderness.
Becoming an Eagle Scout was one of my proudest achievements as a teenager. My parents were thrilled as I was presented with the award in the Mormon chapel where my dad, the bishop of our local congregation and a former scoutmaster, had received his. As I thanked my peers and leaders for their support, I spoke from the same pulpit where a few years earlier, a letter had been read announcing the church’s decision to intervene in the battle over Proposition 8, which amended California’s constitution to prohibit same-sex marriage. The ensuing fight entangled California, the church, and the Boy Scouts of America in an intense cultural debate that has continued to play out in my own life and around the country.
Since 2008, the country has moved swiftly toward fully embracing lesbian, gay, and bisexual people. Within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the shift has been slower, but there has still been notable progress. Earlier this year, for example, the church backed a Utah law banning housing and employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and in July it made an unprecedented contribution to the Utah Pride Center.
The Boy Scouts of America has also responded to this momentous cultural change, and it has become a more accepting place in the process. In 2013, after heated internal discussion, the organization finally changed its policy and began allowing openly gay scouts. Earlier this month, it ended its longstanding and controversial ban on gay leaders and employees—although in order to maintain the support of the many religious institutions that sponsor Boy Scout troops, individual units will still be allowed to discriminate.
Despite this compromise, the Mormon Church said it is “deeply troubled” by the new inclusive policy. After a century of symbiosis and mutual growth, the church is considering ending its relationship with the Boy Scouts of America as a result.
That would be a sad mistake.
If the church pulls support for scouting, half a million Mormon Boy Scouts—thousands of whom are probably gay—will miss out on the friendship, confidence, leadership, mentoring, and fun that scouting can foster.
A Mormon exodus would also cripple the Boy Scouts of America as an institution. The church sponsors one-in-three Boy Scout troops and is by far the largest chartering organization. If it leaves, Boy Scout troops, councils, and camps around the country will struggle to maintain the funding and membership they need to survive, especially if other religious groups follow the church’s lead.
A spokesman for the church said, “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.”
Really? What doctrine?
The church’s official stance on what it still calls “same-sex attraction” is that being gay is neither a sin nor a choice and that gay members who follow church teachings can hold the priesthood, attend temples, and serve in church callings. Unwillingness to let otherwise qualified gay men serve in church callings as Boy Scout leaders—and threatening to leave scouting for simply allowing other troops to do so—is duplicitous and homophobic.
Gay men are allowed to serve in other church roles, but they apparently cannot be trusted as leaders and role models for boys, even though the church requires male leaders at its camps for girls and allows women to lead Cub Scouts. Through its public statements and political meddling, the church has made its condemnation of gay relationships clear. But it still claims to welcome gay people. This is a claim the church cannot credibly make without fully embracing scouting’s new leadership policy.
The Boy Scouts of America is the premier leadership organization for young men in America. It has produced leaders like Michael Bloomberg, Bill Gates, and Neil Armstrong. The U.S. Army gives Eagle Scouts who enlist an automatic promotion. When I became an Eagle Scout, I received a letter from the president and an American flag that had been flown over the U.S. Capitol.
Scouting has finally recognized that it cannot claim to teach leadership if it tells some of its members an innate characteristic makes them unfit to lead. The Mormon Church must learn the same lesson, or it will fracture an important American institution that has given millions of boys practical skills and a moral compass with which to navigate life.
Boy Scouts taught me everything from citizenship to sailing to shotgun shooting to CPR. I learned how to cook, how to camp, and to always keep an eye out for others. I endeavored to be trustworthy, loyal, kind, and brave, and in the process, I gained friends, mentors, and a chance to lead. In an essay for my Eagle Scout application, I wrote about my desire to stay involved with the organization as an adult to ensure that other boys had the same opportunities for personal growth that scouting gave me. I am still committed to scouting. Mormon leaders should be, too.