GRAPEVINE, Texas -- The Boy Scouts of America’s national leadership will vote Thursday whether to allow openly gay Scouts in its ranks, a critical and emotionally charged moment for one of the nation’s oldest youth organizations and its millions of members.
About 1,400 voting members of BSA’s national council are to cast ballots Thursday on a resolution that would end a policy that allows youth Scouts to be excluded based only on sexual orientation. The ban on gay adult leaders would remain in place.
The vote is taking place at a resort in Grapevine, Texas, not far from BSA’s headquarters, during the national council’s three-day annual meeting. While the meeting was closed to the public, it was closely watched by supporters and opponents of a change. Both sides on Wednesday made a final effort to explain their positions. Gay-rights supporters and others who want the policy changed held a summit at a nearby resort, while opponents held signs on the street next to the entrance and a rally nearby.
The results are expected to be announced shortly after 5 p.m. CDT Thursday.
Both sides have waged an effort resembling a political campaign in the months leading up to Thursday’s vote. Supporters of allowing gay scouts used a political consulting firm and targeted about 120 local Scouting councils that they thought were the most competitive—the “swing districts” where they thought votes could be won. Opponents cited Texas code to obtain the names and addresses of voting members from BSA officials so they could send out mailings. They also held rallies across the country on the same day last week.
Scouting was established in 1910 and claims 2.6 million youth members, in addition to thousands of leaders and volunteers. Its board of directors includes executives and community leaders, and President Barack Obama is its honorary president.
BSA has faced mounting pressure over its exclusion policy as public opinion toward gays and gay marriage continues to evolve. Obama called on the Scouts to reverse the ban before a national executive board meeting in February, and two high-profile board members—the CEOs of AT&T and Ernst & Young—said they would work from within to change the policy.
The national executive board decided instead to leave the final decision to a vote of the national council, and BSA launched a listening tour of surveys and focus groups. BSA President Wayne Perry called on voters to approve the resolution overturning the ban, in an opinion piece for USA Today published online Wednesday.
Findings that BSA published on its website illustrate the difficult balancing act it faces.
BSA said a majority of “adults in the Scouting community” support the current ban, but a majority of current Boy Scouts and Venture scouts do not, according to the findings. About 48 percent of parents of current Scouts support the policy, down from 57 percent three years ago.
One estimate suggested a policy change could cause as many as 100,000 to 350,000 Scouts to leave. And it could also affect donors—just more than half of local councils reported to BSA that their donors supported the current ban.
Of the more than 100,000 Scouting units in the U.S., 70 percent are chartered by religious institutions. While these sponsors include liberal churches opposed to any ban on gays, some of the largest sponsors are relatively conservative denominations that have previously supported the broad ban—notably the Roman Catholic Church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Southern Baptist churches.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced in April that it supports the new proposal. Leaders of some smaller, conservative denominations have opposed it.
“Ultimately we can’t anticipate how people will vote but we do know that the result will not match everyone’s personal preference,” said Deron Smith, BSA’s national spokesman.