SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — When the Boy Scouts of America began a discussion earlier this year about lifting its ban on gays, some speculated it could lead to the severing of ties with the Mormon church that goes back 100 years.
Those predictions ended up being off the mark.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints put its support behind the new policy voted on Thursday by the Boy Scouts of America that opens the door for gay youth to join the ranks, while continuing to ban gay adult Scout leaders. With more Scouting troops than any other religious denomination in the country, the backing of the Salt Lake City-based church was significant for the Scouts.
Following church leadership, Utah’s two main Boy Scout councils — made up nearly entirely by Mormon-sponsored troops and among the largest in the country— also backed the rule change.
“This is a win for youth and a win for the community,” said John Gailey, spokesman for the Utah National Parks Council, which has 84,000 youth Scouts across central and southern Utah. “It gives all youth the opportunity to take advantage of the values instilled by Scouting.”
A survey done earlier this year of Salt Lake City-area scouting families revealed discomfort with lifting any part of the gay ban, but Mormon scholars say the hierarchal culture of the church means members are unlikely to diverge from church guidance.
Gailey agreed. While acknowledging that there may be some families who leave because they are unhappy with the new policy, he predicted most will follow the lead of Mormon church leaders.
“I would hope that members understand and pay attention to what their church leadership is saying and follow in that support,” he said.
The LDS church still teaches its members that marriage is between a man and a woman, and that same-sex relationships are sinful. But the church recently launched a campaign encouraging members to be more compassionate toward gay and lesbian members of the church. The church welcomes members who experience “same-sex attraction” as long as they don’t act on those feelings.
The campaign has been criticized for sending confusing mixed messages, similar to criticisms that the newBoy Scouts policy doesn’t go far enough. The two organizations are slowly moving in parallel, said Matthew Bowman, assistant professor of religion at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia.
“They are both fairly traditional and that is important for them to remain so,” said Bowman, who wrote a book about the Mormon church in 2012. “But at the same time, there is a realization that earlier stances may have gone further than they needed to me.”
Mormons faced intense criticism after church leaders helped fund and lead the fight for California’s Proposition 8, a constitutional ban on gay marriage that voters adopted in 2008 after the state Supreme Court ruled that gay Californians could marry. Since then, church leaders have been trying to heal tensions. The launch of the new campaign in December marked the most significant outreach yet to gays and lesbians.
The Boy Scouts policy “mirrors the way the church is moving,” Bowman said.
On Thursday, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints said in a statement that sexual orientation has never been, and is not now, something that precludes young boys from being in Mormon Scout troops. As long as youth refrain from premarital sex — a strict church rule — they can participate in Boy Scouts, church officials said.
“Willingness to abide by standards of behavior continues to be our compelling interest,” the statement said.
The greatest long-term threat to the Mormon-Scouts bond, Bowman says, is the increasingly global membership of the church. With more than half of its 14 million members living outside the U.S, the church may someday create its own Scout-like program so that all church members have access to the same character-building activities no matter what part of the world they live.
There are no official talks of creating any such program, however, ensuring a bond born in the early 1900s from mutual values and principles appears poised to remain strong in the near future. The church covers the cost of Boy Scout troops for congregations, known as wards, and participation is strongly encouraged forboys.
Church officials pointed out on Thursday that they appreciate the Boy Scouts of America reaffirming its commitment to the central principles that the church also teaches young men. That includes service to others and moral behavior.
“As in the past, the church will work with BSA to harmonize what Scouting has to offer with the varying needs of our young men,” the statement said. “We trust that BSA will implement and administer the approved policy in an appropriate and effective manner.”