The Boy Scouts of America approved a new membership standard Jan. 30, which allows transgender youth to join BSA troops and packs. However, units chartered by religious organizations are exempt from implementing the new rules, continuing a previous agreement.
“Starting today, we will accept registration in our scouting programs based on the gender identity provided on an individual’s application,” Chief Scout Executive Michael Surbaugh announced Jan. 30. The change came after a case in New Jersey where a child who is biologically female, but identifies as male, was asked to leave a Cub Scouts pack.
“After weeks of significant conversations at all levels of our organization, we realized that referring to birth certificates as the reference point is no longer sufficient,” Surbaugh said. He explained that because of the changing social and legal understanding of gender identity, the Boy Scouts had “taken the opportunity to evaluate and update our approach.”
The policy has become another hurdle for Catholics in Scouting. The group lifted its long-standing ban on members “who are open or avowed homosexuals” in 2013. Two years later, a similar ban regarding leadership was lifted. While some argue for the continued importance of Scouting for Catholic adolescents, others believe the Boy Scouts have continued to grow further from an understanding of the human person the Church can endorse.
But with nearly 70 percent of units chartered by religious organizations, the Church of Latter-Day Saints, United Methodist Church and the Catholic Church among the largest, the Boy Scouts recognized the need for an accommodation for religious beliefs. According to a BSA legal memo, no unit chartered by a religious organization, like a parish, needs to accept membership or leadership who contradict the morals of their faith. The Boy Scouts also agreed to defend these organizations in court, were they to be sued.
Some leaders in the BSA applaud the move. Kyle Hackler, a Scout leader in New Jersey who welcomed the transgender child into his pack, told OSV that “it’s a step in the right direction. I’m extremely happy to be part of this.
“Caring for others, equality and empathy are values that can change and mold a child’s mind,” he said.
William Brewer, the liaison between a Boy Scouts troop and a Presbyterian church in New York, told OSV he recognized that the change would not apply to all. “When you have a religious organization sponsoring a troop, there has to be a balance of understanding there, that they can’t be asked to violate their faith,” he said.
Brewer supported the move, however, saying: “The way society is going, we have to keep the Scouting movement as open and as inclusive as possible.”
Others are less sanguine about the changes.
“This is just another stark sign of the collapse of a once-great organization,” Edward Whelan, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Ethics and Public Policy Center, told OSV.
The Archdiocese of St. Louis released a statement Jan. 31 that said it is clear that the Boy Scouts of America “are becoming increasingly incompatible with our Catholic values.”
Brian Miller, executive director of the Catholic Youth Apostolate in the Archdiocese of St. Louis, which oversees Scouting in the area, told OSV that the archdiocese was “really saddened and troubled” by the membership policy.
“We really need to worry about the effect it has on the youth,” he said. “We always want to have their best interests at heart, and confirming them in a falsehood doesn’t really serve them very well. It adds to the confusion.”
Miller said that the policy fails to live by a fundamental part of Scouting, “duty to God,” and provides youth with a “faulty understanding of natural law.”
“For a long time, Scouting has taught great leadership skills, and taught a lot about the natural virtues, what it means to be a man and a child of God,” Miller said.
“It’s always been a great way for our youth to be invested in by leaders in their parishes and communities. But the more concern that comes with the program itself, the harder it becomes to let it be that witness.”
Catholic youth ministry
Bishop Robert E. Guglielmone, liaison of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to the National Catholic Committee on Scouting (NCCS), told OSV, “We’re not pleased by the policy, but we can live with it.” He said that the BSA has assured him that units chartered by Catholic organizations will be able to follow their own beliefs.
“If a parish charters the unit, it’s important for them to operate the unit the same way they would operate any other youth ministry,” he said. “The principles they deal with, in terms of young people, should be part of the experience of the Scout unit, and then they also should make sure the program fits in with the beliefs of the Catholic Church.“
Bishop Guglielmone also noted that nearly 300,000 Catholics participate in Scouting currently. The Church’s continued involvement means they have a voice.
“If we depart, we have no voice, and therefore our young people will be in programs where we have no influence whatsoever,” he said.
“I say, let’s use this to the best of our ability, and be courageous about it. We can use this program and use it well.”
George Sparks, the national chair of the NCCS, believes that the Catholic Church can continue to use Scouting as a youth ministry, by “incorporating Catholic education into the program for these young people” and by supporting the faith of Scouts.
He added that Catholic chartered organizations can take such steps as making sure everyone can go to Mass on weekend trips, saying grace before meals and offering Scripture readings and vespers in the evening.
While many have wished to see the Boy Scouts fight against the social pressures brought to bear on them, Sparks pointed out that the legal funds required by such an effort would have taken away from investment in Scouting programs. In addition, in the current legal climate, the Boy Scouts foresaw little chance of success in court.
Sparks said that the Church will “protect the youth from any harm that may come, relative to this.”
In 2015, the Boy Scouts of America had 2.7 million youth and 950,000 adults registered in 103,000 units.
Nicholas W. Smith writes from New York.