Boy Scouts or an alternative? Churches continue to deliberate
NASHVILLE (BP) -- A 6,000-member Southern Baptist church in North Carolina has announced plans to end its 60-year sponsorship of a Boy Scout troop in light of the Scouts' vote in May to admit open homosexuals to membership.
Calvary Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, N.C., instead will sponsor a troop of the newly formed Trail Life USA, which requires adult leaders to sign a statement of faith and requires both boys and leaders to live by a code of conduct that defines "any sexual activity outside the context of the covenant of marriage between one man and one woman" as "sinful" and "inconsistent with the values and principles of the program."
Trail Life USA will accept boys who are experiencing same-sex attraction or gender confusion. It will not, however, receive into membership boys that are openly homosexual or transgendered.
"We've had very strong support from the existing families who were in the Scout program," Donald Mann, the church's associate pastor for stewardship, said, adding, "We've had a lot of support from within the community for what we're doing."
Calvary joined those churches that have ended their sponsorship of Boy Scout troops and opted to support alternative groups for boys like Trail Life USA and Royal Ambassadors, the Southern Baptist missions organization for boys in grades 1-6. The tandem Southern Baptist program Challengers engages young men in grades 7-12 in missions education.
Steve Heartsill, managing editor for Royal Ambassadors at the Woman's Missionary Union in Birmingham, Ala., told BP there are some parallel elements to RAs and Boy Scouts, like an award system, camping and competitions using wooden racecars. However, WMU does not view Royal Ambassadors "as an alternative to anything" and does not take a position on whether churches should continue to sponsor Boy Scout troops, he said.
"With a rich history of 105 years, the purpose of Royal Ambassadors is missions education and involvement," Heartsill said. "RAs is about leading boys to Christ, teaching missions and developing a Christ-like character. As boys are introduced to missional concepts, they learn they have an active part to play in God's plan for their lives and for the world. They come to understand that God can use them now -- even in their youth -- to share His love with others and make a difference."
Teaching biblical sexual morality is not specifically a part of Royal Ambassadors, Heartsill said, "but Christ-like character and virtues are emphasized." The RA pledge includes a promise "to keep myself clean and healthy in mind and body."
When Atlanta-area Roswell Street Baptist Church in Marietta announced its plan to sever ties with the Boy Scouts, pastor Ernest Easley, who also serves as chairman of the SBC Executive Committee, said Southern Baptists "really have an opportunity here to strengthen our RA programs and to get the boys in a program where they're going to be protected, where there's a high moral standard and where they will have an opportunity to learn about camping, missions, evangelism in the local church."
Royal Ambassadors and Challengers appear to be growing in SBC churches, with curriculum sales increasing, Heartsill said. He encouraged churches interested in starting an RA program to contact the RA department at their state Baptist convention or visit www.wmu.com/RA.
WORD OF WARNING
The Alliance Defending Freedom, an Arizona-based Christian legal group, has publicly circulated legal memo recommending that churches with Scout troops end their sponsorship. Otherwise, ADF stated, churches risk losing their First Amendment right to oppose homosexuality in hiring decisions and facility rental policies.
Others oppose the BSA policy change but believe churches should still sponsor Scout troops. The Association of Baptists for Scouting, for one, told Baptist Press in an email that Boy Scouts still "presents a viable outreach option for churches if done properly."
In addition to Calvary and Roswell Street Baptist churches, the Atlanta-area Johnson Ferry Baptist Church has ended its Scout charter. Other Southern Baptists, meanwhile, have opted to remain with Scouting following the BSA National Council's vote to change the organization's membership policy effective Jan. 1, 2014.
An SBC resolution adopted at the convention's annual meeting in June expresses "support for those churches and families that as a matter of conscience can no longer be part of the Scouting family" and encourages "churches and families that remain in the Boy Scouts to seek to impact as many boys as possible with the life-changing Gospel of Jesus Christ" and "work toward the reversal of this new membership policy."
The resolution also expresses concern that "the current executive leadership of the BSA, along with certain board members, may utilize this membership policy change as merely the first step toward future approval of homosexual leaders in the Scouts." Churches that sever ties with the Scouts are encouraged in the resolution to expand their RA programs.
Calvary Baptist, which had nearly 300 boys and adults involved in its Boy Scout troop, said in a statement on its website that the BSA's membership policy change "created a dilemma and required a thoughtful and patient response of our church leaders, scout leaders, and scout families." The church sent a delegation to Trail Life USA's inaugural convention in Nashville Sept. 6-7 and will launch its Trail Life troop Oct. 23.
"Calvary is definitely going forward with this," Mann said of the Trail Life troop.
The new troop will meet in a building that Calvary built for its Boy Scout troop. The church's nonprofit ProVision Foundation set up a fund to receive gifts for the new scouting organization.
Trail Life USA, founded by a coalition of opponents to the BSA membership policy change called On My Honor, announced its name and program details at the Nashville convention. Addressing more than 1,200 attendees, chairman of the Trail Life USA board John Stemberger said the group is not "anti-BSA."
"Our whole life is about the trail, both in the outdoors and in the journey of life as believers," Stemberger said. "So Trail Life is a way of life that is centered on following Christ in the outdoors."
Boy Scout alternatives like Trail Life are a good option for churches that used to sponsor BSA troops, according to the Alliance Defending Freedom memo, which says, "Under threat of litigation, a church that chooses to maintain ties with BSA could face forfeiting the ability to teach biblical principles of sexual morality to its Scouts and to require them to adhere to those principles."
According to the memo, a church with a BSA troop could also compromise its right to refuse employment to homosexuals or rent its facilities for gay weddings. ADF explained that many local "nondiscrimination" laws forbid discrimination in employment and facility rental based on sexual orientation. Often churches are exempt from the sexual orientation portions of such laws, but only if they express consistent opposition to homosexuality. Acceptance of homosexuals into a Boy Scout troop could cause a court to rule that a church is inconsistent and deny its right to refuse employment or facility rental to homosexuals, ADF said.
"We have provided this information to churches that have been associated with BSA so that they can protect their freedom to freely preach the Gospel," said ADF senior legal counsel Erik Stanley, an Eagle Scout. "Churches cannot abandon their duty to be a witness to our nation's youth and must be able to continue to make decisions based on their religious principles."
But A.J. Smith, president of the Association of Baptists for Scouting, said the new policy does not prohibit church-based BSA troops from making sexual abstinence a condition of membership. He also denied that the BSA policy requires churches to affirm the moral acceptability of same-sex attraction and said that while he is "not personally entirely pleased" with the policy, churches should still sponsor Boy Scout troops.
"Baptist churches that charter Scout units have the power to enforce a code of conduct on the boys that precludes their ability to engage in any kind of sexual activity and to bring disciplinary measures to bear on youth who violate the code of conduct, even to the point of removing them if their behavior becomes detrimental to the unit or the reputation of the charter organization," Smith said on the Association of Baptists for Scouting website.
He added, "I believe that it is possible, even desirable, for Baptist churches to continue to utilize Scouting as an outreach ministry of the church. How it is done, however, must change. No longer can a church simply give meeting space to the Scouts. Churches must take a proactive approach to Scouting and involve members of the local congregation alongside Scout parents as leaders [and] set expectations for leaders consistent with the values of the church."
Mann, the associate pastor at Calvary Baptist, said while the church is "not adversaries" of the BSA, "we want whatever organizations we sponsor to be in alignment with our values."
David Roach is a writer in Shelbyville, Ky. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).