President Of Boy Scouts Of America Calls For End Of Ban On Gay Scout Leaders

Robert Gates, the former Defense Secretary who now serves as head of the Boy Scouts Of America, has called for an end to that organizations ban on gay Scout Leaders.

Boy Scouts

Robert Gates, who served as Secretary of Defense for Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama (among other high-level government positions) and now serves as the President of the Boy Scouts of America, said on Thursday that the BSA’s blanket ban on gay scout leaders should be repealed:

The president of the Boy Scouts of America on Thursday called for an end to the group’s blanket ban on gay adult leaders, warning Scout executives that “we must deal with the world as it is, not as we might wish it to be,” and that “any other alternative will be the end of us as a national movement.”

At the same time, religious organizations that sponsor a majority of local Scout troops, including the Mormons and Roman Catholics, should remain free to set their own policies for leaders, said the president, Robert M. Gates, the former director of the C.I.A. and the former secretary of defense.

Mr. Gates called for the changes at an annual national meeting of the group, in Atlanta. He said that he was not yet making a formal proposal but that the Scouts’ governing body should take up the issue formally at a future meeting.

The treatment of gay men and boys has been a source of wrenching debate over the last decade. Conservative religious groups that sponsor many Scout troops, including the Mormon Church and the Roman Catholic Church, have opposed the participation of openly gay members while local leaders in more liberal areas have called for an end to the ban.

In 2013, Boy Scout leaders from across the country voted, with more than 60 percent approval, to say that no youth may be denied membership “on the basis of sexual orientation or preference alone.” But it left intact the policy that no openly gay adults could serve in the organization.

Since then, a Scout group in New York has defied that policy by employing an openly gay leader, and several other groups around the country have expressed opposition to the ban.

Mr. Gates said in his prepared remarks Thursday, released by the Boy Scouts, that the national leadership would take no action against defiant local councils.

At the same time, he said that in the name of religious freedom, the Scouts should allow local sponsoring organizations “to determine the standards for their Scout leaders.”

“Such an approach would allow all churches, which sponsor some 70 percent of our Scout units, to establish leadership standards consistent with their faith,” he said.

“We must, at all costs, preserve the religious freedom of our church partners to do this.”

Josh Israel has further details about Gates’s remarks:

In his remarks to Boy Scouts of America’s (BSA) national annual business meeting on Thursday, BSA national president and former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates called on the organization to move swiftly to change its “unsustainable” national member prohibition on LGBT adults and vowed to ensure that local Scout councils that defy the current ban will not lose their charters.


Gates said, “Events during the past year have confronted us with urgent challenges I did not forsee and which we cannot ignore.” Examples, he noted, include internal challenges from councils including Greater New York and the Denver Area in open defiance of the national ban, other councils adopting LGBT-inclusive non-discrimination policies, and “social, political and juridical changes taking place in our country,” such as the mass outcries over license-to-discriminate proposals in Indiana and Arkansas and the upcoming Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality. “We must deal with the world as it is, not as we might wish it to be,” he told the organization, adding, “The status quo in our movement’s membership standards cannot be sustained.” He said that while the BSA could revoke charters to councils that bucked the national policy, doing so would deny hundreds of thousands of Scouts access and thus he “will not take that path.”

Gates also noted that with the evolving legal landscape, it was possible that “the courts simply will order us at some point to change our membership policy,” and that this will “probably happen sooner rather than later.” Noting that he believes the organization’s legal defenses for discrimination have weakened since a 2000 Supreme Court 5 to 4 ruling backed the right of the BSA, as a private organization, to set its own membership standards, Gates said that if BSA waits for the courts to act, “We could end up with a broad ruling that could forbid any kind of membership standard, including our foundation belief in our duty to God and our focus on serving the specific needs of boys.” The organization also prohibits youths and adults who do not espouse a belief in God and does not allow girls in most of its youth programs.

Instead, Gates suggested, the organization can move “sooner rather than later” to change the policy to allow the sponsors of each individual Boy Scout unit to determine their own standards for adult leaders. Such a policy would allow LGBT-friendly community groups and religious entities who charter Boy Scout troops and Cub Scout packs to opt not to discriminate, but would also allow other sponsors to continue to exclude LGBT adults if they so choose.

One of the reasons for Gates’s decision appears to be the fact that the boycotts that have been ongoing against the BSA since the 1990s over its exclusionary policies toward gays did not really come to an end when the organization took the 2013 action that effectively lifted the ban on openly gay scout members. Even with that action, the ban on openly gay scout leaders at any level of the organization remained in place, although there had been some action at the local level in defiance of that ban. Now, Gates is saying that there will be no disciplinary action against the troops that have defied that ban it is likely to lead others to do the same thing, which should only serve to increase the momentum that would be needed to repeal the ban nationwide. It’s unclear just how easy that will be, though, given the fact that the 2013 vote proved to be highly controversial and required several postponements before a final vote was taken. The fact that Gates himself is calling for the ban to be lifted will likely be enough to get it done, but it’s also likely to cause controversy with troops that are affiliated with churches and other religious organizations. In that respect, his suggestion that the nationwide ban should be lifted but that the decision about hiring openly gay leaders should be left to each individual Boy Scout troop. That concession may be enough to alleviate the concerns of opponents.

Ending the ban is, of course, the right thing to do. As it is, there have likely been gay Scout leaders and members since the organization was started, but as used to be the case in many other parts of society, they were required to keep that part of their life secret if they wanted to remain part of the BSA. Whatever justification there may have been for the policy in the past, and I struggle to think of a rational one that doesn’t involve prejudice or religion, it certainly doesn’t exist today. It’s worth noting in that the Girl Scouts have basically had a completely open door on this issue for more than twenty years now, and there’s been absolutely no evidence that it has had any detrimental effect. The Boy Scouts have been behind the times on this issue for awhile, but it’s good to see that they’re catching up.

Here’s the video of Gates’s remarks, the video starts at the 8:40 mark where he begins talking about this issue:

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Argon says:

    Atheists still not welcome.

  2. george says:


    Atheists still not welcome.

    How about Pastafarians?

  3. Scott says:

    I know there will be some freak outs from some parts of the Scouting community but in reality, very little will change on the ground. As with DADT, when it finally went away, there was a big nothing and the same thing will happen with the BSA.

    There is still in place a two adults at all time policy (put in place in response to child abuse issues)

    From my experience both as a scout and parent of a scout, the issue of sexuality rarely comes up anyway except in the concept of these policy discussions. Not the sexuality of the scout nor the adult. Scouts are too busy doing scout things.

  4. Hal_10000 says:


    Depends on the troop. Many are fine with atheists (and many were quietly fine with gays as well).

  5. John D'Geek says:

    @Scott: There is one significant difference: the Military is a Top-Down structure; the BSA is a Bottom-Up structure. Whereas the United States of America can call on a Draft if they don’t get enough members, the BSA relies entirely on its volunteers — the strong majority of which are religious.

    The Momon Church, for instance, probably won’t push back too much on a regulation that allows others to allow Gay’s to volunteer as leaders (note — troops do not hire leaders); but anything that forces them to allow openly* Gay leaders will be a no go. Such a thing — court imposed or otherwise — will spell the end of the BSA.

    * “Openly” the Mormon definition of this word would be different than the commonly accepted political one. As a point of doctrine, Mormons do not believe that it is a sin to be attracted to someone; only actions are capable of generating sin. A Mormon that has Same Sex Attraction but does not act on it is not considered to be “openly gay” in the same sense as most readers would conceive the term, even if said Mormon’s leanings are public knowledge.

    Of course that’s doctrine; human nature being what it is, individual mileage will vary.

    In this case, by “openly” I mean “practicing”, which is how I expect most readers to understand the term.

  6. Scott says:

    @John D’Geek: You’re right on the Mormons. Back when we were involved in scouting, I was surprised the Mormons had almost a “separate but equal” scouting organization. Whereas our church sponsored our troop, it played very little role in running it. Mainly supplies a space in which to operate. The Mormons actually vet and pick the scoutmasters which creates a very different, separate, and much less diverse scout troop.

  7. Argon says:

    @Hal_10000: Things are as restrictive at the troop level as the local leadership decides. That’s ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’. However at the Council and National levels of visibility, you’d better toe the line.

    My troop was sponsored by Quakers. They we’re cool, believing that belief or non belief in a personal deity was not theirs to question or impose. I got my Eagle award. If the section or national leaders knew about my religious beliefs that wouldn’t have happened today.

    The national character of the BSA seems to have changed since the headquarters moved from New Brunswick, NJ to Irving, TX. From the quiet piety of the northeast to the Abrahamic Bible belt.

  8. John D'Geek says:


    The national character of the BSA seems to have changed since the headquarters moved from New Brunswick, NJ to Irving, TX.

    That may very well be. “Back in my day”, we didn’t worry so much about religion: you promised to do your “duty to God” — however literal, abstract, or metaphorical that might have been — and then moved on. I remember sitting in the pew (I was Mormon in those days), looking at the Buddhist religious award in one of the Scout books. Very cool, very diverse.

    Today I wonder just how literal the “no atheists” rule is. Is it really no atheists? Or is it “sorry, but yes you still have to say the words ‘Duty to God'” — which many atheists can do without violating their consciences.

  9. bill says:

    how anyone would know what you do behind closed doors is pretty creepy for a scout leader.
    do they advertise their sexuality to the scouts or something?

  10. Grumpy Realist says:

    Yah, from an atheist point of view mumbling something under your breath about “God” should equivalent to pledging something about the Tooth Fairy.

    Still don’t understand why atheists spook religious believers so much.

  11. SKI says:

    @Argon: Please don’t call it the “Abrahamic Bible belt”. Jews have no role in that region’s politics/culture. It is evangelical protestant; don’t grant it broad-based legitimacy it doesn’t deserve.

  12. Tyrell says:

    This sort of decision should be left up to the local scouting troops. The policy change in 2013 wasn’t needed. There was no problem. A small group of people pushed for that change and then some corporations threw their weight around. The leadership of the BSA caved in. Result was a lot of churches ended their relationship with the BSA and the groups joined new organizations. That is what happened around here. A lot of the scout troop leaders and parents favored that after what the national BSA leaders pulled. And it had nothing to do with any sort of hatred or “homophobia”.

  13. Argon says:

    @John D’Geek: If you stick your head up about not being a theist you will get booted. The National office doesn’t prevaricate about that. And certainly no troop sponsored by an American Humanist organization is going to get a charter. The philosophically suspect position of the BSA is that one cannot be morally straight without believing in a deity. The GSA and the international scouting organizations make no such requirement. I transferred from a Presbyterian sponsored troop in part because of pressure to believe in a God.

    SKI: I agree. I was just repeating their claims about worshiping the same God.

  14. Argon says:

    @Tyrell: , leaving it up to the Scout troops is precisely what the National leadership would not allow.

    And what precisely, did the people and organizations fear about gay scouts that caused them to pull out of Scouting? I think it was largely prejudice and unfounded fear, things antithetical to the goals of Scouting.

    In my mind the proper response of troops and leaders to a scout announcing he was gay should be: “Whatever. Now start the fire so we can make breakfast” and not, “Yikes! Leave now you immoral pervert! “

  15. Xenos says:

    @bill: if a male scout leader is married to another man, that is pretty open.

  16. Gromitt Gunn says:

    @bill: Really? Bob dropping his husband Fred the Scout Master off, along with their boys Timmy and Johnny, before driving himself and their daughter to her soccer practice is creepy? Well, huh…

  17. Grewgills says:

    Officially yes. In practice I’d guess it rarely matters.. I was in Boy Scouts in the deep South in the 70s. Our meetings were in a church, but that was pretty much the extent of the religious content. Most of us were apathetic, a few were agnostic or atheist, so nobody much cared. I doubt that scouting now is less accepting than scouting in Alabama in the 70s.

  18. Lynn Eggers says:

    @bill: “how anyone would know what you do behind closed doors is pretty creepy for a scout leader. do they advertise their sexuality to the scouts or something?”

    Yes, they do — in exactly the same ways that heterosexuals do. I mean, I get creeped out every time a woman tells me she’s pregnant cuz I know just exactly what she’s been doing. It’s even worse if she says she’s trying to get pregnant. Why do they have to inflict that on me?

  19. Lynn Eggers says:

    @Grewgills: “I doubt that scouting now is less accepting than scouting in Alabama in the 70s.”

    I wouldn’t be too sure about that. I think the Christian far-right has become much more vocal and demanding in the last 30 years.

  20. Tony W says:

    Too little too late. I had a gay scout leader in the 1970s and it was not a problem for anybody, we just did scouting stuff. Sure, one of the leaders was a middle-aged bachelor living alone, nobody thought anything of it.

    Because of the increasing polarization of this organization, I am ashamed of my time in scouting as a child and regret getting my kid involved. I was ignorant of their hate-filled-Christian attitudes at the time. BSA has permanently alienated me and my family.

  21. Mikey says:

    @Argon: My son’s troop is chartered by a Presbyterian church. Explicitly spelled out in the troop’s guidebook: “you do not have to be a member of ANY church to be a member of this Troop.” Religion is never brought up.

    But this is in relatively liberal Northern Virginia. It could be different elsewhere.

    Also, BSA has a “duty to God” badge for Unitarian Universalism, which leaves the question of belief in a deity to the individual.

  22. Ron Beasley says:

    I think the Boy Scouts Of America is rapidly becoming irrelevant. I understand they also have some deep financial difficulties since they have lost much of their funding from large corporations. Even in the 80s when my 2 sons grew up they and their friends had no desire to join the Scouts. The biggest and one of the few Scout Troops in our area was sponsored my the Mormon Church and was about proselytizing as much as camping.
    Even when I grew up in the 50s on the left coast Scout members were a minority.

  23. Mikey says:

    @Ron Beasley: Dunno…around here there are many troops and they are big–my son’s has over 120 Scouts and there are several more he could have joined with nearly that many. And as I said above, this is in Northern Virginia, hardly a hotbed of Republicanism (my district has gone 62-38 for Obama in the last two Presidential elections). I was actually a bit surprised how big Scouting is here.

  24. Ron Beasley says:

    @Mikey: Perhaps it’s a West Coast thing.

  25. Argon says:

    @Mikey: The BSA has been involved in a dispute with the Unitarian Universalists since 1998. That is no longer an approved award. The two sticking points were gays and atheists. For the latter point , part of the problem is the requirement to make an oath to God. The BSA national leadership equates ‘God’ with a higher power or deity. The UUA explicitly doesn’t make that a requirement. The BSA has been very uncomfortable acknowledging the UUA over the past 20+ years.

    The BSA has never required a scout or leader to be a church member but in the national organization’s view, you’d better believe in God. One cannot publically dispute that and remain in the organization. If the “don’t tell” unwritten policy at the troop level is breached, the sectional and national hierarchy will act.

  26. Argon says:

    I should add: The scoutmaster at my original, Presbyterian Church didn’t imply a need to become part of their church, just questioned how I could fulfill the Scout oath to God as an non-believer. He expressed some doubt about whether that was possible. It also related to my unwillingness to go to any Sunday Chapel services during camporees and summer camp.

    In retrospect, I should’ve told him I’d rather take the time to read Hume.

  27. Mikey says:

    @Argon: Well, all I can tell you is it’s never come up here, either during Cub Scouts or Boy Scouts. It just doesn’t seem to be an area of concern for anyone.