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North Coast voices react to Boy Scouts' policy shift on gays

Steven Cozza.

(BETH SCHLANKER / The Press Democrat)
Published: Wednesday, January 30, 2013 at 6:06 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 31, 2013 at 1:24 p.m.

The proposed lifting of a national ban preventing gays from openly participating in Boy Scouts is drawing cheers, but also concern, among those in the North Bay who for years have fought for such change.

"I don't think it's enough, but I do think it's a start. At least they (the Boy Scouts of America) won't be forcing everybody to discriminate," said Petaluma's Steven Cozza, an Eagle Scout who has waged a decades-long campaign to have the ban removed.

Under the proposal being considered next week by Scouting's national executive board, churches, civic groups and other organizations that sponsor Boy Scout troops could decide for themselves whether to allow gay Scouts and leaders.

Supporters say the new policy would give troops the flexibility to make rules based on their social, religious and philosophical beliefs. There are 127 troops and Explorer units, and 2,380 Boy Scouts, in the Redwood Empire Council, which spans Sonoma and Mendocino counties.

"It's an appropriate way to transition into it," Herb Williams, the council's president, said of the proposed changes.

But others raised concerns that leaving the decision to individual troops could further inflame the debate by setting an unequal standard. Most of the nation's Boy Scout troops are sponsored by churches, which typically have a more conservative view of homosexuality.

Jason Stewart, committee chairman of Petaluma's Troop 2, said kids in some communities could still feel left out by Scouting's new policy because they live in places where anti-gay sentiment is strong, or because there aren't many troops to choose from.

"They may not have the option to join Scouting at all because national didn't go all the way and say no way to discrimination," said Stewart, whose three sons participate in Scouts.

The North Bay has in many ways been ground zero for the national debate over Scouting's ban, which conflicts with the region's general acceptance of gays and lesbians.

Cozza has been fighting the battle since December 1997, when he launched a national protest against the ban. He was joined by his father and a friend, who were ousted as Scout leaders for their political activities.

Despite their efforts, the U.S. Supreme Court in 2000 ruled in favor of the Boy Scouts being allowed to prohibit homosexual troop leaders. As recently as July, the organization was re-affirming its stance on gays after it severed ties to a 19-year-old Eagle Scout who publicly acknowledged his sexual orientation.

Cozza said he believes the organization is backing down now because of the loss of corporate sponsorship.

"I feel like change is about to happen and it should. It's 2013," said Cozza, who is now a real estate agent in Petaluma.

Williams said the Redwood Empire Council already has a tacit policy of allowing gays to participate in local Scouting activities.

He said the council's Board of Directors in November unanimously affirmed that stance by approving a leadership statement that in part states the organization "does not practice or support any form of unlawful discrimination based on ethnicity, religion, gender, disability, sexual orientation or political persuasion."

That stopped short of requiring local troops to admit gays. On the other hand, Williams said the council will not support an individual troop that decides to bar gays and is subsequently sued for that policy on the basis of discrimination.

"This council is taking the position that sexual orientation has no place in the program . . . so clearly, we would not be helping them," he said.

Some critics of the proposed changes fear they will leave individual troops exposed to lawsuits or even spell the end of the venerable organization.

Williams disagreed. "There will not be any lawsuits anywhere that will put an end to Boy Scouts," he said.

A spokesman for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which strongly supports Scouting, declined to comment this week until a policy change is official.

Blake Busick, pastor of Santa Rosa's First United Methodist Church, predicted that if the national policy is changed, his parish will decide to openly allow gays in the Cub Scout troop that the church sponsors.

"I think it's a good thing. We would certainly be supportive of that locally," he said.

That's despite disagreements within the church over homosexuality, including the church's ban at a national level on gays and lesbians being ordained as clergy.

Mary Brunet, a business administrator for the church and the mother of an Eagle Scout, said she would welcome Scouting's new policy.

She said she and her husband, Geoffrey, allowed their son, George, to participate in Scouts, despite their misgivings about the ban on gays.

"It did not exactly jibe with our personal views," she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521-5336 or derek.moore@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @deadlinederek.

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