For nearly a century, local churches and Boy Scout troops have gone together like—well, a campfire and marshmallows.
And why not? Local churches exist to increase the love of God and neighbor, as H. Richard Niebuhr once put it. Boy Scout troops teach boys to do their best to do their duty to God and their country. No wonder religious organizations sponsor more than 60 percent of Scouting units.
But in the last few years this once-natural fit has begun to come unglued. Gays and lesbians are claiming rights for themselves that other persons take for granted. And the public is much more aware of the Boy Scouts' opposition to homosexuality.
The issue came to a head last June 28, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Boy Scouts of America et al. vs. James Dale. In a 5-4 vote, the Court ruled that the Boy Scouts of America, as a private organization, had the right to exclude members and leaders based on their sexual orientation.
The United Church Board for Homeland Ministries was one of five national religious bodies that filed an amici curiae (friends of the court) brief in support of James Dale. Despite the strong history of support for Scouting that these groups shared, they challenged the Boy Scouts' assertion that homosexuality is immoral.
As the Boy Scouts' website states, "We believe an avowed homosexual is not a role model for the values espoused in the Scout Oath and Law."
But in the UCC, in 1985 General Synod 15 called on congregations to study homosexuality and declare that they are "Open and Affirming" (ONA). ONA churches are those churches that affirm and welcome gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Christians into full membership and leadership. Currently there are 365 ONA churches in the UCC.
Earlier General Synods had voted that sexual orientation is not a legitimate ground to deny civil liberties, to discriminate in hiring within the UCC or to bar qualified candidates from ordination.
Even though General Synod resolutions only speak to but not for local churches, many local churches take seriously this urging that they not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation.
Thus the current tension in many churches that sponsor Boy Scout troops but oppose the Scouts' national policy on homosexuality.
Four case studies
Local church reactions have varied.
In Cumberland, Ind., for example, St. John UCC has sponsored Troop 115 since 1958 and has seen nearly 50 of its boys become Eagle Scouts. One of these, Kenneth Reinhardt, is now the Scoutmaster. St. John's co-pastor, the Rev. Dennis Frische-Mouri, is also an Eagle Scout.
"The Boy Scouts have been beat up quite a bit lately," says Reinhardt, "I think very unfairly. I think the Boy Scout position lines up extremely well with God's word. I would think that most Christians who know the Bible would agree with that position."
In Oak Park, Ill., Pilgrim Congregational UCC became an ONA church in 1998 after a "thoughtful and prayerful process of discernment," according to the pastor, the Rev. Carla Grosch. "We definitely heard God's call to be an inclusive church," she says.
The church does not sponsor a Scout troop, but a group of Scout leaders meet regularly in the church. Now the church council is developing a building use policy.
In Taunton, Mass., the cabinet (council) of Union Congregational UCC voted not to renew its charter with its Boy Scout troop. "Tension was pretty high," says the Rev. Beverly Duncan, pastor. "Yet I feel pretty good about the church having done that."
"Jesus never said anything about homosexuality," Duncan adds. "We took this stance because of how we believe in Christianity."
In Cleveland, troop leaders of Pilgrim Congregational UCC's Troop 98 insist they don't discriminate, but also don't want to publicly oppose national scout policy. Yet many members of the ONA church want the Scouts to speak out. The pastor, the Rev. Laurinda Hafner, sought a win-win solution. After a series of meetings, Pilgrim decided to draft a new non-discriminatory building use policy that all building users, including the Boy Scout troop, will sign annually. And Pilgrim will continue to oppose the national Scouting policy.
It sent a contribution to "Scouting for All"—a national organization working to get the Boy Scouts to rescind the policy of discrimination against gay youth and adults—and encourages church members "to write letters, sign petitions and provide financial support as necessary until the prohibition is lifted."
United Church News editor W. Evan Golder is an Eagle Scout.
For additional resources
To receive a resource packet jointly developed by Local Church Ministries, Justice and Witness Ministries, and Wider Church Ministries, contact the Rev. June Boutwell, 700 Prospect Avenue, Cleveland, OH 44115; phone 216/736-3871; e-mail .
National headquarters, Boy Scouts of America, P.O. Box 152079, Irving, TX 75015-2079; phone 972/580-2000; .
Scouting for All, P.O. Box 2832, Petaluma, CA 94953-2832; phone 707/778-0564; .