The relationship between the exclusively male leadership of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the predominantly male leadership of the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) has been one of the America’s longest bromances. Now, that relationship has entered a rough patch from which it might not recover.
The potentially irreconcilable difference? Gay male leadership.
On Monday, the National Executive Board of the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) ratified a resolution ending the organization’s blanket ban on openly gay adult leaders and employees, following the National Executive Committee's July recommendation to that effect. Chartered organizations, however, can “continue to use religious beliefs as criteria for selecting adult leaders, including matters of sexuality,” according to a BSA statement on the resolution.
“This change allows Scouting’s members and parents to select local units, chartered to organizations with similar beliefs, that best meet the needs of their families,” said the BSA.
As the decision came down, all eyes naturally turned to the Mormons. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, commonly known as the Mormon or LDS Church, has maintained a close relationship with the BSA since 1913. A century later, the church sponsored 17 percent of all youth in scouting, according to The New York Times.
But the Mormon Church’s stubbornness on issues of sexual orientation could be stronger than their love for the BSA. After going all in for California’s Proposition 8 in 2008, the church has remained morally opposed to same-sex marriage and campaigned for “religious freedom protections” in the face of anti-discrimination ordinances.
The church is now decidedly discontented with the BSA’s decision to leave the matter of gay leadership to the local level. On Monday, the church released a scathing statement, saying that they were “deeply troubled” by the BSA’s decision. The church even criticized the timing of the board’s vote, which they said took place at a time when top Mormon leadership is out of the office. The statement continued:
“When the leadership of the Church resumes its regular schedule of meetings in August, the century-long association with Scouting will need to be examined. The Church has always welcomed all boys to its Scouting units regardless of sexual orientation. However, the admission of openly gay leaders is inconsistent with the doctrines of the Church and what have traditionally been the values of the Boy Scouts of America.”
It is perhaps the most definitive sign that the Mormon Church and the BSA could part ways since the latter began to reexamine its policies on homosexuality a few years ago.
But the Mormon Church’s cited justification for potentially leaving the BSA behind—that “the admission of openly gay leaders is inconsistent with the doctrines of the Church”—is also a puzzling one. Not only would a chartered organization like the Mormon Church maintain control over leadership under the new BSA policy, the church’s own internal policy toward adult gay men actually allows them to serve in religious leadership roles, albeit with a disclaimer.
Current Mormon policy on men who experience “same-gender attraction”—church leaders intentionally avoid language like “gay men”—allows them to hold the priesthood and serve in leadership roles provided that they remain celibate and abide by other moral standards. This marks a shift from pre-1990 policies under which lesbian, gay, and bisexual Mormons could be excommunicated based on their identity rather than their behavior.
A 2007 pamphlet for gay Mormons (PDF) includes the following assurance: “President Gordon B. Hinckley has promised that those with same-gender attraction who do not express these inclinations may ‘go forward as do all other members of the Church.’ If you live by the standards God has set and fill your days with worthwhile things, your life will be full of hope and you may expect opportunities for meaningful service, social inclusion, and spiritual growth in this life.”
When asked by The Daily Beast how a celibate gay man serving as a scoutmaster would necessarily be “inconsistent with the doctrines of the Church” given this policy, the Mormon Church did not immediately respond to request for comment.
The Mormon Church’s threat to leave the BSA behind also comes as a shock given the religion’s prior handling of BSA policy shifts on this issue.
When the BSA moved in 2013 to allow gay youth to openly participate in the organization, the Mormon Church approached the matter cautiously, saying in a statement that “[s]exual orientation has not previously been—and is not now—a disqualifying factor for boys who want to join Latter-day Saint Scout troops,” provided that gay scouts, like straight scouts, abstain from sexual relationships in accordance with church doctrine.
In those more courteous times, the church emphasized the “strong, rewarding relationship” they had with the BSA. But as soon as the policy on adult gay leaders entered the conversation, the Mormon Church’s official language grew cold, ominously promising in May of this year “to assess how [any changes] might impact our own century-long association with the BSA.”
In Mormon dating culture, this is called doing a DTR: defining the relationship. And if the Mormon Church sounds like someone going through a breakup, that’s because the BSA and the Mormon Church have basically been in bed with one another up to this point.
According to an article in the church magazine Ensign, the Mormon Church was “the first nationally chartered organization to affiliate with the [BSA].” In addition to currently sponsoring a large percentage of scout troops, the church’s programs for young men are now built around the scouting program. Furthermore, earlier this year, Mormon apostle Jeffrey R. Holland was elected to the BSA National Executive Board. He voted against the policy change.
In the past, the church has attempted to wield the scale of their involvement in the BSA to influence judicial perspectives on its leadership policy. In the year 2000, the Mormon Church filed a brief (PDF) with other churches in the Supreme Court case Boy Scouts of America v. Dale, which upheld 5-4 the BSA’s right to exclude gay leadership.
“The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—the largest single sponsor of Scouting units in the United States—would withdraw from Scouting if it were compelled to accept openly homosexual scout leaders,” the brief read.
“Only those who live in harmony with the teachings of the Church and Scouting are asked to serve as scout leaders,” it added.
Fifteen years later, the BSA has decided to accept gay leaders without the pressure of a Supreme Court ruling—but perhaps with the help of some substantial legal threats—and the Mormon Church may finally make good on its threat, with some in the media speculating that the church could create a new international organization to replace scouting.
So, after a century of mutual love, it’s come to this: One male-dominated group wrestling another male-dominated group over the issue of men who sleep with other men. It’s too soon to say who will come out on top but love has already been lost. As we know it, the warm history of Mormon involvement in scouting is over.