Editor’s note: At the bottom of this story is a further statement issued Jan. 31 by Gilbert Hanke of United Methodist Men.
Leaders of two United Methodist agencies — United Methodist Men and United Methodist Board of Church and Society — welcomed news that the Boy Scouts of America is considering ending its decades-long ban on gay scouts and scout leaders.
The proposed change would remove a national membership requirement dealing with sexual orientation and allow local charter organizations to decide. NBC News reports that the Boy Scouts of America could announce the change next week at the national board’s regularly scheduled meeting.
United Methodist Men promotes the use of scouting ministries and civic youth-serving agencies across the denomination. The Board of Church and Society advocates for the denomination’s social witness.
“These proposed changes will allow local churches to reflect those tenets in their membership requirements,” said a statement by Gilbert Hanke, the top executive of the Commission on United Methodist Men. “It does not force changes, but allows local churches control over these requirements based on their beliefs.
“These proposed changes are actually more consistent with the current Book of Discipline,” the denomination’s law book, he added.
Jim Winkler, the top executive of the United Methodist Board of Church and Society, echoed that view.
“United Methodists affirm that all persons are individuals of sacred worth, created in the image of God,” Winkler said. “Our local churches can now pursue an outreach unfettered by arbitrary restrictions that carry with them potential negative legal consequences or obloquy, and can instead seek to live together with all persons in Christian community, welcoming, forgiving and loving one another.”
The agencies’ agreement on the proposal marks a stark change from 2000 when they were on opposite sides of a U.S. Supreme Court case that dealt with whether Boy Scouts could bar gays from leadership positions.
The nation’s top court, in a 5-4 decision, agreed with the Scouts’ legal position that forcing the organization to accept gay troop leaders would violate its constitutional rights to free expression and free association.
United Methodists and scouting
Both Hanke and Winkler stressed the importance of scouting as a ministry of The United Methodist Church.
Boy Scouts of America leaders consulted with Hanke and Larry Coppock, national director of scouting ministries, before proposing to change membership requirements.
As of 2012, 6,700 United Methodist congregations served 363,876 young people through 10,868 Cub Scout packs, Boy Scout troops and Venturing crews. The United Methodist Church is second only to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (commonly known as Mormons) in the number of congregations that host Boy Scouts of America groups.
The United Methodist Church hosts more Cub Scout packs than any other religious group.
Hanke noted that the United Methodist Book of Discipline supports “The rights and liberties for all persons, regardless of sexual orientation.”
The UMC’s Book of Discipline also identifies the practice of homosexuality as “incompatible with Christian teaching.” Church law prohibits “self-avowed practicing” gays and lesbians from serving as clergy, but the book is silent about whether they can serve as lay leaders in other roles in the church.
Winkler also pointed out that the Social Principles in the Book of Discipline “implore us not to reject or condemn homosexual members and friends, and instead commit ourselves to be in ministry for and with all persons.
“For that reason, this decision by the Boy Scouts of America alleviates a conflict between their discriminatory rules and our denomination’s guidance on faithful social witness,” he said.
Change from 2000
The court case dealing with Boy Scout leadership was one of the rare instances when churchwide agencies found themselves on opposing sides in a legal argument.
In 2000, the Commission on United Methodist Men filed an amicus brief that argued that the Boy Scouts, as a nonprofit, should have the right to set its own course without interference from the government. Joining the brief were the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.
The Board of Church and Society took the other side of the question in an amicus brief filed with the Episcopal Church, United Church of Christ and leaders of Reform Judaism. The agency argued that the Boy Scout policy of denying membership based entirely on sexual orientation conflicts with the Social Principles of the denomination.
Jan. 31 statement from Gilbert Hanke, General Secretary of the General Commission on United Methodist Men
Many questions have been raised about the proposed changes in BSA as it relates to allowing gays to participate as scouts and as leaders. We know that there are strong and legitimate concerns on both sides of this issue. Some of the statements that I made in initial press releases have morphed into new content and so I want to attempt to provide some clarity.
This is a BSA decision which we did not ask for; our meeting with BSA leadership was to inform us of what they were considering.
Once they made the decision to propose this change there are basically two ways this could have been implemented. One would have changed the national standard to force all charter organizations (in our case, local churches) to accept gay scouts and gay leaders. The choice they made was to move that decision to a local level. The reason we endorsed this model of implementation is because it allows your local church to continue to operate exactly like it is operating today. You choose the leaders, you recruit the scouts, the leadership of your troop and pack reflects the traditions and values of your faith community.
If you have concerns that BSA is considering this change in policy, please contact BSA.
My statements were designed to assure members of the UMC that if BSA makes this change it will not change the way scouting is conducted within our denomination. Feel free to contact me by email or by phone if you have additional questions for me.
Gilbert C. Hanke