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Op-ed: The Mormons and the Scouts Need a Divorce

Op-ed: The Mormons and the Scouts Need a Divorce

When I was in grade school, I was in the Cub Scouts for a few years. This troop, like many in Arizona and Utah, was chartered by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also known as the Mormon Church.

The Mormon Church has a very long and close relationship with the Boy Scouts of America. Since 1913, the church has been allowed to charter its own troops and follow its own set of special rules. Every LDS ward is required by the church to establish troops if two or more boys in an age group are eligible. Scouting is literally the official youth activity of the Mormon Church, while no similar activity exists for girls. This is part of the reason 18 percent of all Boy Scouts are LDS and 37 percent of all troops in the U.S. are chartered by the Mormon Church. Ominously, the church also is one of the largest sources of funding for the BSA.

When it comes to gays in scouting, the LDS Church has a mixed history  In 2000, when the BSA’s policy was challenged in the Supreme Court, the church filed an amicus brief stating, “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — the largest single sponsor of Scouting units in the United States — would withdraw from Scouting if it were compelled to accept openly homosexual scout leaders.”

In 2013, however, when the BSA voted to allow gay scouts to be part of troops, the LDS Church officially endorsed the change: “The current BSA proposal constructively addresses a number of important issues that have been part of the on-going dialogue including consistent standards for all BSA partners, recognition that Scouting exists to serve and benefit youth rather than Scout leaders, a single standard of moral purity for youth in the program, and a renewed emphasis for Scouts to honor their duty to God.”

In recent years the LDS Church has repeatedly tried to emphasize that celibate gays are welcome to fully participate in church, as long as participation doesn’t mean scouting. When the BSA decided in late July to end the blanket ban on gay scout leaders, the new policy explicitly allowed for organizations that charter troops, as the LDS Church does, to continue to ban gay scout leaders. National BSA president and former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates hoped this exemption would assuage religious groups involved in scouting and prevent a schism, particularly with the LDS Church. He had strong reason to believe so: Only two weeks before the decision the LDS Church had issued a statement that any new policy must ensure churches have “the right to select Scout leaders who adhere to moral and religious principles that are consistent with our doctrines and beliefs.”

However, when the new policy was announced, the LDS Church hinted darkly that it might be leaving, while fudging about its past history with gays and scouting. The official church statement made the laughable claim that it had never discriminated against gay scouts, saying, “The Church has always welcomed all boys to its Scouting units regardless of sexual orientation.” 

Read that last line again, and then remember the press release only went downhill from there.

The release hinted darkly that “the century-long association with Scouting will need to be examined.” There was also a veiled threat in the press release that the church would take its ball and go home, saying, “The Church has long been evaluating the limitations that fully one-half of its youth face where Scouting is not available. Those worldwide needs combined with this vote by the BSA National Executive Board will be carefully reviewed by the leaders of the Church in the weeks ahead.”

This last warning may only be a bluff. The Southern Baptist Convention threatened to withdraw in 2013 if gay scouts were allowed in, but didn’t leave in the end. LDS troops are smaller than others on average, and alternative organizations like Trail Life will not accept Mormon members as troop leaders, because Trail Life does not consider Mormon beliefs to be truly Christian.

Not that a parting of ways would upset many non-LDS troops and scouting leaders. Bloggers have described LDS troops as being poorly run, disorganized, and unmotivated, adding that the BSA National Council only tolerates some of them because they pour so much money into scouting. Many of the youth are there only because they are expected to be, and the adult scoutmasters are there because they were assigned the job by the local bishop. As one described the situation, “If you took a real scout master from, say Ohio, and stuck them in a Mormon troop in Utah, they would hardly recognize the program.”

From my own recollections as a Mormon, scouting and getting Eagle Scout certification was a check in the box to be completed before you hit 14. That was the age where you started having to go to priesthood lessons every day at 6 a.m. in preparation for going on a mission.

At the heart of this been opposition to gay scout leaders, even celibate ones who are church members in good standing with temple recommends, callings, and every other aspect of church life.

Except if it involves youth. Anecdotally, the LDS Church leaders will not even let celibate lesbians and gays in good standing have any calling that has to do with children and young adults, and flags the records of members who admit to being LGBT. The unspoken assumption is that gay men and lesbians are a threat: The LDS Church is still effectively accusing gays and lesbians of being child molesters. Its opposition to gay scout leaders even in non-LDS chartered troops bespeaks the long-standing visceral (and entirely false) belief that gay men are much more likely than straight ones to molest children.

The LDS Church may have spent millions of dollars on marketing agencies and campaigns designed to convince people that the organization is kinder and gentler. But that’s judging a book by its cover. Once you get past the glossy dust jacket and look at what’s actually inside, you find the same old homophobia that was always there.

As in all messy divorces, it’s time for BSA and the LDS Church to bite the financial bullet and call it quits. They’d both be a lot happier away from each other. And so would the kids.

BRYNN TANNEHILL graduated from the Naval Academy in 1997 before serving as a campaign analyst while deployed overseas. She later worked as a senior defense research scientist in private industry; she left the drilling reserves and began transitioning in 2010. Since then, she has written for OutServe, The New Civil Rights Movement, Salon, Everyday Feminism, The Good Men Project, Bilerico, and The Huffington Post.

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