By Carrie Brown McWhorter
Religious groups holding Boy Scouts of America (BSA) charters for their local units have struggled with the rapidly changing landscape of BSA policies regarding sexuality and gender the past few years.
While the Jan. 31 announcement that BSA now accepts transgender members made headlines, this latest move is not the first time churches have had to re-evaluate their relationship with the national organization.
In 2013, BSA ended its ban on participation by openly gay youths and in 2015 ended its ban on openly gay adult leaders.
Many Baptist churches nationally and in Alabama have ended their sponsorship of BSA troops in recent years. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the largest Boy Scouts sponsor, said the Church is “studying” the transgender announcement and considering BSA’s position on religious chartering organizations. In the past BSA has said chartering organizations like churches will be able to organize their troops in a way that is consistent with their religious beliefs.
True Life Missionary Baptist Church, Forestdale, in Birmingham Baptist Association hosts a Scout troop, but Pastor Steve Small Jr., said the BSA announcement will not change how the troop is led or what the church teaches.
“I preach and teach against all sin so when something like this happens, those that work with our ministry already know my position and it’s the Bible’s position. That’s it,” Small said.
The local level
Small said the troop at True Life Missionary Baptist has been active 12–15 years and has helped several boys attain the rank of Eagle Scout.
Other pastors at Baptist churches that host troops declined to comment on the policy shift, citing BSA assurances that troops will retain autonomous leadership at the local level.
In a 2015 statement Ted Spangenberg Jr., president of the Association of Baptists for Scouting, urged Baptist churches to not give up on Scouting programs and to have them “led by adults who are faithful to the moral beliefs of that congregation, thereby aiding in the spiritual development of our youth.”
“We believe conditions resulting in this policy change by the BSA provide clear evidence of the increasing need for current and future moral champions in our society,” he wrote. “We encourage (Scouts) to continue to be ‘salt and light’ in their units and we urge all Baptists to be supportive of their efforts.”
BSA Chief Scout Executive Mike Surbaugh addressed the policy change that came several months after an 8-year-old transgender boy in New Jersey accused BSA of discrimination.
“After weeks of significant conversations at all levels of our organization, we realize that referring to birth certificates as the reference point is no longer sufficient,” Surbaugh said in a video statement regarding membership policies in the organization’s single-gender programs. In addition to scouting programs for boys, BSA has a program called Venturing for boys and girls ages 14–21.
Interpretation of gender identity
According to the written statement from BSA, “That approach is no longer sufficient as communities and state laws are interpreting gender identity differently and these laws vary widely from state to state.”
The statement acknowledged that “Cub Scouting and Boy Scouting are specifically designed to meet the needs of boys” but went on to say that the organization “will accept and register youth in the Cub and Boy Scout programs based on the gender identity indicated on the application.”
“Our organization’s local councils will help find units that can provide for the best interest of the child,” the statement said.
In a response to the recent BSA policy change Spangenberg wrote that “legislative actions in our states, rulings by our courts and discussions in our society clearly highlight the extreme need for a biblical Christian influence and ministry in all aspects of our community life.”
“There is no doubt in my mind that all children, adolescents and youth, particularly those who struggle with sexual orientation and gender identity — and the parents who struggle with their children in all aspects of their life — have a need for the help and hope that is available through the gospel of Jesus Christ and the ministry of congregations that are His.”
Spangenberg wrote that while it is likely that many Christians would rather not have to deal with the unique needs of ministering to those who struggle with gender identity, the issue exists. And many families in these situations are more likely to seek nonchurch programs like Boy Scouts than traditional church programs.
“These families need to also be reached,” Spangenberg wrote. “The fields are clearly ‘white unto harvest.’ … A Baptist church which has the courage, insight and inspiration to charter a Cub Scout pack, a Boy Scout troop or a Venture crew as a method of outreach and harvest in their community — to all of its children, adolescents and youth and their families — deserves our appreciation and support.”
In his 2015 statement Spangenberg noted churches that charter a Boy Scout unit “own” their units and have the freedom to select adult leaders based on the “moral tenets and beliefs of their congregations.” He also pointed out that no changes have been initiated to the BSA code of conduct or the Scout Oath, by which a Scout pledges to do his duty to God and country and to keep himself “physically strong, mentally awake and morally straight.”