Scout challenges anti-gay policy of Boy Scouts of America

Wed May 30, 2012 7:18pm EDT

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By Barbara Liston

ORLANDO, Fla., May 30 (Reuters) - An Eagle Scout known for his defense of same-sex civil unions delivered on Wednesday a petition signed by 275,000 people to the Boy Scouts of America demanding an end to the group's exclusion of gays.

Zach Wahls, a 20-year-old engineering student at the University of Iowa who attained the organization's highest rank of Eagle Scout, has two lesbian mothers. He became an Internet sensation in January 2011 when his address to the Iowa House of Representatives supporting gay civil unions logged more than 2.5 million views on YouTube.

Dressed in full Eagle Scout regalia, he hand-delivered cardboard boxes containing 275,000 signed petitions to Boy Scouts of America leaders attending their national board meeting at Gaylord Palms, an Orlando-area resort and convention center.

The petition, challenging the century-old Scouts' policies against gay youth and leaders, was launched April 17 by Jane Tyrrell on Change.org, the web-based social change platform.

It urges the Scouts to reinstate Tyrrell, a 32-year-old lesbian mother from the small town of Bridgeport, Ohio, who was ousted as a Scout den leader and treasurer in April because of a policy that prohibits gays from being members or leaders of one of America's largest youth organizations.

Wahls told reporters thousands of current and former scouts signed the petitions, with some posting comments contending that anti-gay policies hurt the organization and demean their scouting achievements.

"They (the petitioners) are ready for progress. We are ready for this progress," Wahls said. "I refuse to stand by idly as it (Boy Scouts) forfeits its cultural relevancy at the very moment this country needs it most."

Soon after Wahls met behind closed doors with two Scout board members, the organization signaled that it may fail to deliver on the Scouts' longstanding promise to "always be prepared," however, at least when it comes to policy change.

"Today, Scouting officials accepted signatures from an online petition and shared the purpose of its membership policy," the Boy Scouts said in a statement.

"Scouting maintains that its youth development program is not the appropriate environment to introduce or discuss, in any way, same-sex attraction," the statement said.

Deron Smith, the Scouts public relations director, laid out the Scouts' policy on homosexuality in a subsequent email to Reuters.

"DISTRACTION TO THE MISSION"

"While the BSA does not proactively inquire about sexual orientation of employees, volunteers, or members, we do not grant membership to individuals who are open or avowed homosexuals or who engage in behavior that would become a distraction to the mission of the BSA," he said.

"Our supporters do not see Scouting as the right environment to reconcile divergent viewpoints on societal issues and realize a good partnership does not require full agreement on every issue," Smith added.

"By focusing on the goals that unite us rather than on one issue that divides us we are able to accomplish incredible things for young people."

The Boy Scouts of America in 2000 won a 5-4 U.S. Supreme Court ruling allowing the organization to ban gays whose conduct, the Boy Scouts argued, violated its values.

The Boy Scouts of America claimed more than 1 million adult volunteers at the end of 2011. It was founded in 1910 as part of the international Scout movement established in Britain by General Robert Baden-Powell.

Rex Tillerson, chairman and chief executive of Exxon Mobil Corp, was due to step down as the national president of the Boy Scouts of America on Thursday. He was to be succeeded by Wayne Perry, a minority owner of the Seattle Mariners baseball team and former vice chairman of AT&T Wireless Services.

Smith, who said he was unable to provide a list of the Boy Scouts' major sponsors, also said he was unable to say how many cases there had been over the years involving people who were barred or expelled from the organization because of their sexual orientation but they were "extremely rare."

(Editing and additional reporting by Tom Brown; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

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