An unexpected call by the president of the Boy Scouts of America on Thursday for an end to the organization’s blanket ban on gay adult leaders was met with pointed reaction from local Scouting leaders: It’s about time.
“I’m overjoyed,” said Wendell Baker, assistant scoutmaster of Troop 234 in Moraga. “Almost everybody wants this to change. … It’s definitely going to help the Boy Scouts and it’s a change that needs to happen.”
Robert Gates, the former U.S. defense secretary who has been president of the Boy Scouts for a year, said the 105-year-old organization had no choice but to revise its policy, opening the way to allow local Scouting organizations to decide on their own whether to permit gays as leaders.
“We must deal with the world as it is, not as we might wish it to be,” he said during a speech at the Scouts’ national annual meeting in Atlanta. “The status quo in our movement’s membership standards cannot be sustained.”
He cited a growing resistance to the ban among local troops and Boy Scout councils. He said state laws that bar discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation make the group vulnerable to being ordered by the courts to change the policy.
“If we wait for the courts to act, we could end up with a broad ruling that could forbid any kind of membership standard, including our foundational belief in our duty to God and our focus on serving the specific needs of boys,” Gates said.
The treatment of gay members and leaders within the Scouts has been the subject of intense debate inside and outside the organization for years. In 2013, the organization decided to allow openly gay youth as Scouts, beginning in January 2014, but retained the bar on gay adults as leaders.
In supporting his call for change, Gates pointed to the 2010 decision by a federal district judge in California that overturned the military’s don’t ask, don’t tell law, the string of states that have passed antidiscrimination employment laws based on sexual orientation and the impending Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage.
In January, California’s Supreme Court voted to prohibit judges in the state from belonging to the Boy Scouts due to the ban on gay troop leaders. Judges affiliated with the Scouts as of Jan. 21, 2016, could be removed from office for violating the state Code of Judicial Ethics under the policy.
Gates’ two-year term as head of the organization began in May 2014.
After his speech Thursday, the Boy Scouts’ San Francisco Bay Area Council declined to comment, referring all media calls to the national organization.
The national organization said Gates’ remarks speak for themselves.
A spokeswoman for the Scouts said a decision is expected no later than October, which is when the Boy Scouts of America’s national executive board meeting will be held.
While pleased by the direction of the change, some civil rights groups were disappointed by Gates’ motivation. They said his comments emphasized the fear of legal challenges rather than a real shift in thinking.
“It would have been good if they would be changing their policies recognizing the impact of the discriminatory policies they have,” said Rick Zbur, executive director of Equality California, a statewide advocacy group representing people who identify themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender.
While no official proposal has been made, local leaders were encouraged by his remarks.
“For him to make this statement is very encouraging that the Scouts will finally move into the 21st century,” said Rod Sinks, who stepped down after more than five years as scoutmaster of Troop 37 in Los Altos after becoming mayor of Cupertino in December.
Baker, the Moraga assistant scoutmaster, is the father of a 17-year-old who is working toward Eagle Scout status. Baker said he became involved in Scouts for Equality, a national group that advocates for equal treatment based on sexual orientation, after a neighbor was kicked out of the Scouts in 2012 because he is gay. The neighbor, he said, had just turned 18 and was just shy of becoming an Eagle Scout.
Steve Tennant, committee chairman with Troop 57 in Orinda, said he hesitated allowing his son to become a Scout because of the organization’s exclusionary policies. But he relented, in part because he wanted to push for change from within.
Tennant, the father of a 19-year-old Eagle Scout and a 16-year-old star rank Scout, said the change is long overdue.
“It’s a positive initial step,” he said, “but I’m amazed it’s taken this long for the Scouts to come to terms with this policy, especially for a group that teaches leadership.”
Victoria Colliver is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @vcolliver