The Free Press, Mankato, MN

January 29, 2013

Local Scout groups readying for possible change on gay issue

By Brian Ojanpa
Free Press Staff Writer

MANKATO — With the Boy Scouts of America seemingly about to drop its long-standing ban on gays as Scouts and leaders, scouting groups are pondering potential ramifications at the local level.

“As a sponsoring organization (of Scouts), we wouldn’t have a problem with it because everything is kind of moving that way,” said Lee Overmoen, longtime administrator of the Mankato Moose Lodge until his recent retirement.

 “Things have really changed in the last few years with the whole gay issue, and rightfully so.”

As recently as last summer the national Boy Scout organization was reaffirming its stance against avowed homosexuals serving in scouting, its leader saying the policy “remains in the best interests of scouting and reflects the beliefs of its members.”

But on Monday Scout officials suggested that an about-face decision could be forthcoming, saying the organization’s National Executive Board will meet to reconsider its membership policy.

Paul Wilkinson, head of the Mankato-based Twin Valley Council serving scouts in 15 southern Minnesota counties, said he was a bit taken aback by the announcement.

“This one caught me a little off guard.”

Although other Scout councils — including the state’s largest, Northern Star Council — have gone against national policy for years, Wilkinson has said in the past that the local council follows national policy and doesn’t try to create its own.

He said Tuesday that will continue to be the case because the anticipated lifting of the national organization’s ban on gays would mean that the decision to ban or not to ban would fall upon the local civic and religious groups that sponsor Scout troops.

Wilkinson said such autonomy doesn’t guarantee smooth sailing on the matter because gay issues continue to be societal powder kegs.

“It’s kind of a lose-lose for the Boy Scouts because you’ve got the far left and the far right and everything in between.”

Tony Perkins, president of the conservative Family Research Council, said in a prepared statement this week that the national Scout board appears to be caving in to “the bullying of homosexual activists.”

Countering that was Iowan Zach Wahls, a former Eagle Scout, founder of Scouts for Equality and the son of lesbian parents, who called the board’s softening of its position a step in the right direction, but not a big enough one.

“Under the policy change, it will still be possible for some (local) units to discriminate,” he told media.

The Boy Scouts National Executive Board meets next week in Texas. Its head, Wayne Brock, said in a media statement that the Boy Scouts will not dictate its position to local units, members or parents.

“Under the proposed policy, the BSA would not require any chartered organization to act in ways inconsistent with that organization’s mission, principles or religious beliefs.”

Wilkinson said a dozen or more entities sponsor Scout troops in Mankato/North Mankato alone.

Overmoen said it’s too early to tell how the Moose would respond to such a policy change if the troop it sponsors continued to prohibit gays from membership.

But he has a gut feeling about what would happen:

“If our Troop 95 said no to gays, we could consider not sponsoring it anymore.”

Wilkinson has said that, to date, there has been no organizational discussion pertaining to the topic of homosexuality within the Twin Valley Council.

“It’s never been an issue here. We try not to get into social issues of any kind.”

He said if a youth came to him and divulged that he’s gay, he’d urge him to discuss the matter with his parents.

“We don’t discuss the sexuality of children. Would we kick him out of Scouts if he were gay? No.”   

In 2000, the Supreme Court affirmed the Boy Scouts’ right to refuse gay members.

Since then, protestations against the Scouts’ policy have increased with some large corporations ceasing their donations to the Scouts as long as the no-gays policy is in place.

Also, some members of the BSA National Executive Board have been working from within to change the membership policy.

The Greater Mankato United Way provides $82,500 annually to Scout groups in Blue Earth, Nicollet and Le Sueur counties.

United Way President Laura Bowman said funding is contingent upon enabling all youths to participate, including gays.