The new head of the Boy Scouts of America, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, said Friday he supports inclusion of gay adults in Scouting but opposes re-opening talks on the issue that has divided one of the country’s most popular youth organizations in recent years.
Gates was confirmed as the BSA president on Thursday at the group’s annual national meeting in Nashville. His appointment comes one year after the organization voted in a controversial ballot to allow gay youth - but not adults - to join Scouting.
"I was prepared to go further than the decision that was made," Gates told The Associated Press before delivering a speech at the meeting in remarks that were distributed by the BSA. "I would have supported having gay Scoutmasters, but at the same time, I fully accept the decision that was democratically arrived at by 1,500 volunteers (on the National Council) from across the entire country."
Gates said the membership issue "has left us divided, distracted and defensive."
"Given the strong feelings - the passion - involved on both sides of this matter, I believe strongly that to re-open the membership issue or try to take last year's decision to the next step would irreparably fracture and perhaps even provoke a formal, permanent split in this movement - with the high likelihood neither side would subsequently survive on its own.
"... And who would pay the price for destroying the Boy Scouts of America? Millions of Scouts today and Scouts yet unborn. ... Thus, during my time as president, I will oppose any effort to re-open the issue."
Gates made his comments a few days after NBC News obtained an internal resolution revealing that the organization had quietly voted to change the eligibility age of youth in Scouting, moving it down from 21 to 18 years old. The change will be implemented likely by spring 2015 and would mean that Scouts now considered youth from ages 18 to 20 would have to comply with adult membership standards – including the ban on open or avowed gays.
At the time of last year's ballot, BSA said all youth members – including in the programs whose maximum age was 21 – could remain in Scouting. Some considered the revelation earlier this week to be an about-face from that pledge.
Gates, an Eagle Scout, shepherded the military through the end of its "don't ask, don't tell" policy in 2011 and supporters of including gay adults had said they were hopeful that his appointment was a sign that change was coming to the BSA.
But Zach Wahls, co-founder of Scouts for Equality, which supports inclusion of gays, said in a statement: “We hope now that he (Gates) will do what all Eagle Scouts are charged to do: lead. His characterization of last year's decision as 'democratic' is unfortunate and untrue, as the resolution limiting inclusion to only youth was crafted by a small, unelected committee more concerned with avoiding criticism than with following the principles of the Scout Oath and Law."
“This is a copout,” he continued, “and it tarnishes the legacy Mr. Gates has built as a leader who bridged cultural and political divides and led the military — and now the Boy Scouts — into the 21st century.”