Scouting units divide to address gay leadership issue

A group of Boy Scout and Cub Scout parents, and the scouting committee chair for the organization chartered by Washington’s Trinity Episcopal Church for the last quarter century, have applied to create a new scout troop and cub pack affiliated with Reynolds Memorial Baptist Church in Sperryville.

The reason: Some parents and scouting leaders’ disagreement with the Boy Scouts of America’s decision earlier this year to lift its long-standing blanket ban on scout leaders who are openly gay.

“It is a painful thing,” said longtime Rappahannock Scoutmaster Roger Pierson. “Families are going to make a decision, one way or the other — and these are friends. We have [Boy Scout] friends whose families will make different decisions. And that’s not going to be easy.”

About two dozen boys are members of the current Boy Scout Troop 36, and a similar number belong to Cub Scout Pack 123.

Following a private online survey taken by parents this summer, and months of emails and meetings among parents, Trinity’s lay vestry and Reynolds’ deaconate, an unknown number of parents whose religious beliefs about homosexuality now conflict with the BSA’s — and the U.S. Supreme Court’s, and the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia’s — are in the process of applying to scouting’s Shenandoah Council to create a new troop and pack under Reynolds’ charter.

Under pressure to find a middle ground between two forces — churches and religious groups, many of them conservative, which charter more than two thirds of scout troops; and an increasingly powerful gay rights movement that this year won a resounding Supreme Court legal victory over the right of same-sex couples to marry nationwide — the BSA changed its rules in July. But it left the decision to adopt the policy to individually chartered groups.

“It saddens me that the change in national BSA policy has forced this situation upon us,” wrote Walt Longyear, the longtime scouting committee chair for the Trinity-chartered Troop 36 and Pack 123, in an August email to parents. “There is no reason why this divisive issue has to divide us as friends and neighbors. Avoiding hurt feelings has been a primary goal as I approached this situation. I know I won’t be totally successful, but I hope you will make your decisions calmly and in a friendly manner.”

In an email to parents, the scouting leader, who is making the move to Reynolds, said he was worried about personal financial liability. “If something happened between a gay scout leader and a boy in our troop, I would be sued. The scoutmaster would be sued. Every registered adult leader would be sued.

“I’m not saying that every homosexual is a pederast,” he wrote. “All of the homosexuals I know are decent people.”

“It angered me greatly,” said one Rappahannock Cub Scout parent who — like most contacted for comment — agreed to speak only if her name was not used. “Many parents happen to think the national rule is a good rule, and the BSA is about inclusiveness. And the other thing is, now I have a 7-year-old, and he’s going to ask me, ‘Where is everybody going, and why?’

“Not only is this a backwards way of thinking, but these guys are trying to do it under the radar, and if they do that, I think they need to own it,” she said.

Longyear said this week that the move to Reynolds — where the independent Baptist church members’ views on same-sex marriage differ from those of Trinity’s markedly inclusive congregation and leaders — was needed to afford scouting parents some constitutional protection of their beliefs.

“Under the Constitution,” Longyear said, “your conscience trumps everything.”

While the BSA’s decision has caused turmoil, and some revoked scouting charters by religious organizations, across the country, Pierson said he believes a difficult situation was “handled as well as it could be here in Rappahannock.” He said all four units will likely continue to engage in activities, including camping and other annual trips, together.

“It was clear [from the survey, and meetings with parents] that the number of scouts to be served would be the greatest by having four units — two scout troops, two cub packs,” he said. Otherwise, it was feared many parents would withdraw from scouting altogether, said Pierson — who had planned more than a year ago to step down after 15 years as Troop 36’s scoutmaster, and will soon be serving as assistant to newly named Scoutmaster Mike Del Grosso for the Trinity-sponsored troop.

It was a largely work-related decision about the volunteer position, Pierson said, and has nothing to do with his dedication to scouting.

“Scouting has always looked for the boys . . . that need scouting,” he said. “That’s what scouting’s here for, the shepherd going after that last lamb that’s wandered off.”

He said the current leaders of both the Trinity units and the new ones at Reynolds are convinced that, with two charters, “we will be serving a larger number of boys this way.”