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Published: Wednesday, 1/30/2013

Allowing gays OK with local Boy Scout officials

National group weighs ending ban based on sexual orientation

BY TOM TROY
BLADE STAFF WRITER

A possible policy change for the Boy Scouts of America to open its ranks to gay youths and adult leaders would be implemented without any objection from the two top leaders of the Toledo-area organization, those officials said Tuesday.

Gary Harden, president of the Erie Shores Council’s board of trustees, and Ed Caldwell, the executive for the four-county scout council, said they’ll implement whatever changes the national board sends their way.

The executive board of Boy Scouts of America is set to meet next week in Texas to consider abolishing its policy of barring gay youth and adults from participation.

“We’re a local council that receives a charter to operate here locally from the national organization,” Mr. Caldwell said. “My job is to uphold the policies that the Boy Scouts of America mandates to us to be a local council. Whatever those policies are, it’s my charge to deliver scouting to kids and to leaders in our county territory [and] to follow the rules and guidelines of the national BSA.”

He said he was not aware of any local boy or an adult being excluded from a troop because of his or her sexual orientation.

Mr. Harden, a Toledo lawyer, said the national executive committee doesn’t have direct local or state representation so Toledo doesn’t have a vote.

“We’re responsible for following national’s policies. We certainly expect to be here delivering scouting’s mission for the kids because we’re supposed to be here, and we are here, to teach character [and] youth development throughout our community, and we expect to be here regardless of what that policy is or how it changes,” Mr. Harden said. “I'll be told what it is, and I intend to follow it.”

He said the Boy Scouts don’t ask anyone to declare sexual orientation when they join the Scouts or get involved as a parent.

Opposition to the Scouts’ longstanding no-gays policy gained momentum in 2000, when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the group’s right to exclude gays. Scout units lost sponsorships by public schools and other entities that adhered to nondiscrimination policies, and several local Scout councils made public their displeasure with the policy.

Mr. Caldwell said he’s not sure whether controversy over the policy has affected membership. He said the council’s membership last year of just over 6,200 youths was an increase over the previous year for the first time since 2007.

“The program is about developing young people and about developing character in young people. It’s never been about teaching young people about sexual orientation,” he said.

One church that has been forced to grapple with the policy is Epworth United Methodist Church in Ottawa Hills. Despite the church’s encouragement, a mother who is a lesbian declined the invitation to become a volunteer for the church’s Scout troop because she feared retaliation for her son.

The church’s pastor, the Rev. Bob Thomas, said he likes what he’s heard of the proposed policy.

“I think the Boy Scouts of America have every right to set their rules and polices and I do believe that this proposed change to allow sponsoring agencies to decide whether they will allow individual participation regardless of sexual orientation is a positive move since it provides flexibility for each community or sponsoring organization to support their own beliefs and values,” Mr. Thomas said.

He said the Methodist church is open to all individuals regardless of sexual orientation.

In an unrelated situation, Liz Sheets, an Ottawa Hills mother who spoke up in a debate in November about whether the Ottawa Hills Schools Parents Association should continue to affiliate with the Boy Scouts because of its policy, said Tuesday that she was pleased with the proposed change, even though it stops short of a flat ban on discriminating against gay youths or adults.

“Change doesn’t happen overnight and I think this is a good stepping stone,” said Ms. Sheets, a lesbian who volunteered with the Scout troop when her sons, now 12 and 17, participated.

She said she told the Scout leaders of her sexual orientation up front and experienced no opposition. The association voted in November to continue chartering the Scouts.

Ms. Sheets, a public relations professional for a county board representing people with developmental disabilities, said corporations withholding financial support and a growing acceptance of same-sex relationships have had an effect on what she said is a good youth organization.

“More and more people have gotten beyond [fear of gays] that because they now have neighbors and friends and relatives who are able to be more open about who they are,” Ms. Sheets said.

Contact Tom Troy at: tomtroy@theblade.com or 419-724-6058.



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