If the Boy Scouts of America decides to drop its national ban on gay members and leaders and instead allow local groups to set their own policies, assistant scoutmaster Eric Frey thinks it will help scouting overall -- even if individual troops decide to continue the exclusion.
"My feeling is there didn't need to be a national policy," said Mr. Frey, whose three sons have all been members of Troop 373 in Shadyside, sponsored by Sacred Heart Parish, and where he has been scoutmaster in the past.
"Making the ban a national policy caused a lot of problems for scouting over the years." he said. "We lost a lot of boys because parents couldn't reconcile the good being done by the organization with the restriction, that there was a group of people they won't accept under any circumstances. If a group decides it wants to have a gay person as a leader, it should be their choice."
He doubts his own troop will drop the exclusion since its sponsor is a Roman Catholic parish and said it has not been a major issue for the families involved. But in principle, he said, "I like the idea of choice."
The BSA announced Monday that at a meeting next week it will consider letting local sponsors decide whether to accept gay members and leaders. The statement follows years of controversy and protests that tarnished the Boy Scouts' image in some quarters and saw some schools, civic groups and corporations withdraw support over what they saw as discrimination.
Other groups, mostly religious conservatives, have supported the exclusion. Some have said they will leave Boy Scouting if the prohibition becomes optional.
Michael Surbaugh, executive of the Boy Scouts Laurel Highlands Council that includes Allegheny County, said the council has agreed to support whatever decision the national volunteer executive board makes.
Laurel Highlands has more than 500 chartering organizations comprising Cub Scout packs, Boy Scout troops and Venturers, with 29,000 members in all. Mr. Surbaugh said the council has discussed the gay ban "as it would any other issue" but would not speculate on how a change would affect membership, which he said has risen 0.5 percent in each of the past several years.
Nationally, membership dropped sharply last year in the Cub Scouts, the Boy Scouts' biggest division, which has shrunk nearly 30 percent over the past 14 years.
If the policy is dropped, Mr. Frey said, it might not have much immediate affect.
"Most of the sponsors that opposed the ban have already stepped away from scouting," he said. "So you're dealing with sponsors that are religious or fairly conservative and probably won't want to change.
"But if they take it out of the national policy, I absolutely believe more groups will come forward as sponsors and it will be a great advantage to the general acceptance of scouting."
For example, he said, the no-gays policy has put some scouts in an awkward position in the job market. "I spoke to one young man who wants to enter the entertainment industry and is worried about putting Eagle Scout on his resume. He was concerned about the reaction."
Sally Kalson: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1610.