The Boy Scouts of America announced Monday that it is considering lifting a ban on openly gay members, a move that was hailed by some men with Massachusetts ties who have been involved in scouting.
“I think it’s a big development for the BSA to make an announcement like that,” said Jerry Hegarty, 49, who recently stepped down as leader of Troop 702 in Reading, but remains active with the group. He added that he was pleased that the Scouts may soon not be “discriminating against a certain group anymore.”
In a statement, however, the Boy Scouts stopped short of granting full membership rights to openly gay scouts, volunteers, and employees.
“Currently, the BSA is discussing potentially removing the national membership restriction regarding sexual orientation,” the statement said. “This would mean there would no longer be any national policy regarding sexual orientation, and the chartered organizations that oversee and deliver Scouting would accept membership and select leaders consistent with each organization’s mission, principles, or religious beliefs.”
That provision, which would allow local troops to maintain the ban, did not go unnoticed by Bill Thomas, 27, who became an Eagle Scout with the same Reading troop in 2003.
“As I understand it, the potential policy change [means that] local affiliates of the Boy Scouts of America can essentially discriminate at their own discretion, which I believe is immoral,” said Thomas, who now lives in Arlington, Va. He said he believes the proposed change is a “positive step.”
Hegarty said leaving the question of allowing gay members up to local groups would be consistent with how the Scouts operate.
“National policy is national policy, and what happens at the troop level is really a function of the community the troop exists in and the parents, adults, and boys that really drive it,” he said.
Under the current policy, the Scouts do not inquire about a person’s sexual orientation, but will 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.”
Deron Smith, a spokesman for the Boy Scouts, said the national board will review the matter at its regularly scheduled meeting next week in Irving, Texas.
Monday’s announcement came after the Scouts said in July that they were reaffirming their ban on openly gay members, following a two-year evaluation by a special committee.
Asked Monday about the timing of the decision to revisit the issue, Smith wrote in an e-mail that it “is a result of a longstanding dialogue within the scouting family. Last year, scouting realized the policy caused some volunteers and chartered organizations which oversee and deliver the program to act in conflict with their missions, principles, or religious beliefs.”
Timothy Green, 66, of Wellesley, a former Eagle Scout who returned his award because of the current ban, as others have done recently, said Monday’s announcement caught him off guard.
“Actually, I am a little surprised, and it’s a positive development,” Green said.
But Kris Mineau — president of the Massachusetts Family Institute, a socially conservative think thank — said he hopes the Scouts maintain their current policy.
“We hope that the BSA will not change their longstanding policy of sexual purity for their leaders and for their participants,” Mineau said, adding that he believes the Scouts feel pressure from corporations that have withdrawn financial support because of the ban.
“This is bullying on a grand scale,” he said.
Carly Burton, deputy director of MassEquality, a statewide gay rights organization, said her group welcomed Monday’s announcement.
“Scouting can be a wonderful thing for folks, but excluding people on the basis of their sexual identity is really harmful, both to the scouts and the scout leaders,” she said.