- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Christian churches are being warned that if they continue to sponsor Boy Scout troops, they are opening themselves to multiple legal challenges that could affect whether they can “freely preach the Gospel.”

The Boy Scouts of America’s newly adopted membership policy — in which youths no longer will be blocked from joining the Scouts based on “sexual orientation or preference alone” — is “a sweeping change to its core values,” said Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian legal defense organization.

The policy change has legal ramifications for religious chartering groups, potentially exposing them to lawsuits if they continue to sponsor troops while seeking to maintain the traditional Christian teaching that homosexual behavior is immoral.

What could happen is “somebody would come and say, ‘We want to use your church for a same-sex wedding ceremony,’ and the church would say, ‘Wait, we have a religious belief against that,’” said Erik Stanley, an alliance lawyer and Eagle Scout.

Most states that have gay-marriage laws also have some kind of “conscience exemption” that does not require churches to perform same-sex ceremonies.

But the rebuttal by such a gay advocacy group would be, “Well no, you don’t — or if you do, you’re not sincere or you don’t follow it, because you allow this Boy Scout troop in, and you had to specifically sign a charter” saying that “you agreed with the BSA policy of allowing in openly homosexual youth,” Mr. Stanley said.

“That’s our basic concern — that it weakens the church’s freedom of religion and freedom of association arguments on that point,” he said, adding that churches may need to separate from the Boy Scouts of America to “protect their right to freely preach the Gospel” and “be a witness to our nation’s youth.”

In response, Deron Smith, a Boy Scouts spokesman, said most of this kind of commentary “is based on speculation” and inaccurately states that the Boy Scouts organization has made a fundamental shift in values or is attempting to cause division within Scouting.

“We believe most people have grown tired of those who seek to use Scouting, an organization whose mission is to serve young people, to advance their own agendas,” Mr. Smith said.

“While a handful of chartered organizations have decided to drop their sponsorship of troops, the new policy has not affected the commitment of the overwhelming majority of our 116,000 units in the Scouting family,” he said.

Moreover, “in the rare cases when a chartered organization has decided to no longer sponsor the Scouting program, our local council executives have identified another suitable chartered organization,” he said, pointing to photos of Baptist and Christian churches that publicly welcome Boy Scout troops.

Catholic parishes also may stay with the Boy Scouts of America.

The National Catholic Committee on Scouting interprets the new policy to mean that a boy with a same-sex attraction “will not be encouraged or pressured to disclose publicly the experience of such attraction” and will not be denied a rank award or religious emblem, or risk expulsion from scouting, simply for experiencing or disclosing such an attraction, said the Diocese of LaCrosse in Wisconsin.

“As the Holy Father Pope Francis recently stated, ‘same-sex attraction’ alone does not preclude active membership in the Church,” the diocese said.

Despite recent news reports to the contrary, the diocese said, “at this time, there is no reason to believe that the charter of Troop 90 will not be renewed by St. Mary Parish in Altoona.”

Other chartering organizations and troops are decamping from the Boy Scouts of America.

After the organization changed its policy in May, the adult and youth leadership teams at Briarwood Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, Ala., prayerfully and carefully assessed its next steps.

Its leaders unanimously decided to end its 52-year-old charter with the Boy Scouts, said senior pastor Harry L. Reeder. The Boy Scouts of America “has rendered its commitment to produce young men of virtue and principled leadership unattainable by its embracing sexually immoral and abnormal behaviors as normative and therefore calling good and acceptable what God calls evil and destructive,” the church’s resolution said.

An alternative group to the Boy Scouts of America is holding a conference in Nashville, Tenn., on Sept. 6-7. The group’s new name, policies and other details will be released then, organizers said.

One of the organizers is John Stemberger, who founded OnMyHonor.net this year in an effort to persuade the Boy Scouts of America not to approve changes to its membership policy.

Groups that still oppose the Boy Scouts’ policy because it didn’t go far enough are maintaining their calls for more changes in membership rules. Numerous gay-rights groups, including Scouts for Equality and GLAAD, want the Boy Scouts of America to end its ban on adult gays as volunteers, leaders and employees.

Atheist groups oppose the religious requirements that Scouts revere God and pledge to do their “duty to God.”

Why is the Boy Scouts of America “still choosing to exclude and shun nonreligious boys and their families?” Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, asked in June, when the foundation ran an ad with a cartoon of a Scout receiving a medal for “religious bigotry.”

The Secular Coalition for America has asked Congress to bar the use of federal funds to assist any group that discriminates based on religion, and specifically revoke the federal charter of the Boy Scouts of America.

“We do agree” with the Scouts’ new policy on gay youths, a coalition spokeswoman said Wednesday, “but we would also like for religious discrimination to be removed from their policies as well.”

Lawmakers in California are moving toward passing an unprecedented bill to strip the Boy Scouts of America and other youth-serving organizations of privileged tax status if they discriminate against people based on their sexual orientation.

SB 323, introduced by California State Sen. Ricardo Lara, passed the state Senate and this week passed two Assembly committees. Mr. Lara, who is openly gay, said the Boy Scouts’ change in youth policy in May was not sufficient under his bill because the organization still discriminates against gay adults.

• Cheryl Wetzstein can be reached at cwetzstein@washingtontimes.com.

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