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Scouting ways out of the culture war


Joel Helfrich was once a Boy Scout, eventually earning enough merit badges to reach Scouting's highest rank: Eagle Scout. His experience with the Scouts while growing up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania and Pittsford was wonderful, he says, yet last year Helfrich renounced his affiliation with the Boy Scouts of America.

Helfrich returned all of his scouting materials and awards to the Greater Rochester region's Seneca Waterways Council to protest the BSA's policy of banning openly gay people from participation.

"I have no regrets," he says. "I should have done it sooner."

But the incident exemplifies what Stephen Hoitt, Scout executive of the SWC, calls "the tug of war" the Scouts find themselves in.

"Our board here 12 years ago worked out a position statement with the Gay Alliance [of the Genesee Valley], the Rochester school district, United Way, and a number of other community organizations that says membership status [with SWC] is based on conduct and one's behavior," he says. "It's not our role as an organization to teach sexuality to kids."

Hoitt says sexual orientation is not an issue for the Rochester organization, but appropriate conduct is. He uses the example of a Scout leader who comes into a room and pops a video with sexual content into the DVD player.

"That is inappropriate," he says. Whether the leader is gay or straight wouldn't matter, Hoitt says: the person would be asked to leave.

Hoitt says the public can debate who does have the right to talk about sexuality to young boys, but leaders in this community have already decided it's definitely not a job for Scout leaders.

"So it's kind of ironic that we're stuck in a sexual debate right now when we've made it clear that sexuality is not part of scouting," he says.

Whether the BSA — the national organization — will adopt a similar stance, is hard to say. Last year, the BSA reasserted its policy prohibiting openly gay people from joining the organization. The policy, essentially a national ban, survived a legal challenge in the US Supreme Court in 2000.

But about a month ago, the BSA announced that it was reconsidering the policy, possibly leaving the decision to local Scout organizations. And then, days later, the BSA said it would postpone its decision until May.

The idea of welcoming gays into the organization, according to some reports, prompted a swift and angry response from some within the BSA. But Hoitt says it's more complicated than that.

The real test for the BSA may not be whether to lift the ban, he says, but how to do it, since decision-making is extremely complicated for this multi-layered national organization.

"One of the challenges we have, and we have many, is a declining youth population in New York," Hoitt says. "There are pockets that are growing, such as in Victor, and the inner city population is growing phenomenally. But generally, the suburbs are not growing, and the overall population is declining by about 3 percent to 4 percent a year."

The Rochester organization includes Monroe, Wayne, Yates, Wyoming, Seneca, and Ontario counties, Hoitt says, with 12,500 boys in about 500 Scout groups.

Roughly 70 percent of the Scout groups are sponsored by churches, and the groups cover operating costs through a combination of philanthropic donations and fund raising. For example, Boy Scouts sell popcorn, Christmas trees, and they wash cars.

"The Scout units are owned by their sponsoring entities," Hoitt says. "If you look on a national level, we have tens of thousands of Scout groups all owned by churches of different denomination and different civic groups, and all have differing views of what the Boy Scout's standards should be. So you sort of have the Scouts at the local level caught in a civil war between two and three opposing sides."

"Councils like us sitting up here in the Northeastern United States, one could say, are in a blue state, and we're in a much more liberal-based community," he says. "It's easy for us to say we're going to be more open, but on the national level, they've got to balance all of those different opinions. Changing the national policy probably plays well in the Northeast, but it is not a very popular topic in the South and Southwest right now. Volunteers there are just beside themselves with frustration that the Boy Scouts would go down this road."

An understanding exists at the highest level of the BSA organization, however, that society's attitudes about sexual orientation are changing, Hoitt says.

"Look at the number of states that have allowed gay marriage," he says. "The military ended 'don't ask, don't tell,' and both presidential candidates, Obama and Romney, said the Boy Scouts of America should change the policy."

At the local level, Hoitt says he heard from religious and community leaders throughout the area when the BSA said it's reconsidering the policy. And there are strong opinions for and against lifting the ban, he says.

The one thing that hasn't changed is the Scouts' core mission, Hoitt says, which is helping young boys and men build character and leadership skills. A key principle for Scouts is working for the betterment of society, he says, and not for their own benefit.

"So it's kind of ironic that we're stuck in a sexual debate right now when we've made it clear that sexuality is not part of scouting." Steve Hoitt.