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Boy Scouts seeking members' input on gay ban

March 14, 2013|Molly Hennessy-Fiske
  • Debate over the Boy Scouts of America's policy on gays comes as the group is struggling to maintain its membership. Membership was down about 19% during the last decade to about 2.7 million as of 2011, the most recent year for which data were available.
Debate over the Boy Scouts of America's policy on gays comes as the… (Tom Pennington / Getty Images )

The Boy Scouts of America is surveying adult members about their attitude toward gays in Scouting as the organization's leaders consider lifting a ban on gay membership later this spring.

The 13-question survey is being distributed to 1.4 million Scout leaders, alumni, volunteers and parents. It asks them to respond to hypothetical situations involving homosexuality, gays camping with children and gays in church leadership. In some instances, members can respond according to a scale of feelings that ranges from "strongly support" to "strongly oppose."

Some survey questions address situations that may occur under the ban, others what might occur if the ban is lifted. For example:

"Johnny, a first-grade boy, has joined Tiger Cubs with his friends. Johnny's friends and their parents unanimously nominate Johnny's mom, who is known by them to be lesbian, to be the den leader. Johnny's pack is chartered to a church where the doctrine of that faith does not teach that homosexuality is wrong. Is it acceptable or unacceptable for his mother to serve as a den leader for his Cub Scout den?"

"David, a Boy Scout, believes that homosexuality is wrong. His troop is chartered to a church where the doctrine of that faith also teaches that homosexuality is wrong. Steve, an openly gay youth, applies to be a member in the troop and is denied membership. Is it acceptable or unacceptable for this troop to deny Steve membership in their troop?"

"A gay male troop leader, along with another adult leader, is taking a group of boys on a camping trip following the youth protection guidelines of two-deep leadership. Is it acceptable or unacceptable for the gay adult leader to take adolescent boys on an overnight camping trip?"

The questions are part of a twice-annual survey called "The Voice of the Scout" emailed to leaders, parents and Scouts older than 14 for whom the organization had addresses. Scout alumni will receive the surveys in the next few days, said Boy Scouts spokesman Deron Smith. Current Boy Scouts were not sent the questions about the gay ban.

The survey marks an ongoing shift in the group's policy on gays.

The Boy Scouts first convened a committee of Scouting officials and volunteers to review the gay ban three years ago, and decided to maintain the policy, Smith said. Then this year leaders signaled they planned to vote on whether to lift the ban during a Boy Scouts national board meeting in February. As opponents, some in uniform, protested outside Boy Scouts headquarters, leaders postponed their decision.

In May, the Scouts' National Council is expected to meet near the headquarters in Irving, Texas, and vote on whether to modify or lift the ban on gays.

Some on the Boy Scouts board have spoken out in favor of ending the ban. The debate over the policy comes as the group is struggling to maintain its membership. Membership was down about 19% during the last decade to about 2.7 million as of 2011, the most recent year for which data were available.

"We are currently in the 'listening phase,' where the BSA's committees engage key stakeholders for input and develop a summary report," Smith said. "Part of this process is to survey a variety of key stakeholders."

The survey was developed by Alexandria, Va.-based North Star Opinion Research, which is known for working with Republican candidates but has also worked with bipartisan groups, according to Whit Ayres, the group's president.

Ayres defended the Boy Scouts survey, saying its creators tried to use neutral language for a fair and balanced survey. "We tried to provide scenarios that are realistic: three scenarios that could arise if Scouts maintain their current policy and three scenarios that could arise if the Scouts changed their current policy," Ayres said.

Scenarios were used, he said, because they "force you to think through the kinds of decisions that will face the Scouts" if they maintain or lift the ban.

"Some people approach this question from a very black-and-white perspective. It's clear when you look at these scenarios that there are areas of gray, and we are asking the Scouting family how they would make those judgment calls," Ayres said.

Supporters of the ban on gays in Scouting said the survey posed worthwhile questions.

"These are real and important questions that all Boy Scouts and their parents should consider, and the questions highlight how drastically this organization will be affected if they change their policy on homosexuality," said Jonathan Saenz, president of Texas Values, a conservative group based in Austin.

But Democratic pollster Margie Omero, president of Washington-based Momentum Analysis, noted the negative construction of some questions -- such as describing a church that "does not teach that homosexuality is wrong" as opposed to "is tolerant of homosexuality" or "does not discriminate against gays."

"I just don't think this poll, the way it's structured, gives you the best answers in terms of how the membership feels about the policy change," she said. "The scenarios belie a point of view."

Opponents of the ban also said they were discouraged by the survey's wording.

"Their vocabulary when it comes to gay issues just goes to show how far the Boy Scouts have to go on gay and lesbian issues," said Rich Ferraro, a spokesman for the New York-based Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation.

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molly.hennessy-fiske@latimes.com

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