TAMPA — New Year’s Day came and went and the Boy Scouts of America survived without losing any local Scout troops, though some had predicted big shockwaves on Jan. 1, when a new policy that grants membership to openly gay Scouts took effect.
Gulf Ridge Council Executive Director George McGovern said the organization is as strong as ever despite the furor that accompanied the debate over eliminating the organization’s longstanding ban on gay scouts.
“I can tell you from our standpoint, the Gulf Ridge Council is one of a few councils in Florida to grow,” he said. “Our Cub Scout recruitment is up 20 percent. That’s very good and that’s where our focus is. We want to make sure that what we’ve got going on is going well.”
The Gulf Ridge Council, which encompasses troops in eight West Central Florida counties, including Hillsborough, Pasco and Polk, serves more than 24,300 youth in 216 Cub Scout packs, 186 Boy Scout troops, 69 Venturing Crews and 52 Learning for Life units. The council stretches from Citrus County to Hardee and Highlands counties.
In May, Boy Scout national delegates met in Texas, and 61 percent of 1,400 voters approved the proposal not to discriminate based on sexual orientation. The delegation stopped short of allowing gay adults to supervise the youths.
The decision did cause some shock waves, particularly among some of the more conservative sponsors, many of which are churches.
McGovern said he respects everyone’s opinion, even conservative sponsors that have cancelled troop charters.
“We’ve caused a little anguish in a couple of churches,” he said.
In most cases, if a church dropped a troop, another church or organization stepped up to take on the sponsorship, he said. While some Scouts and troop leaders may have left because they disagree with the policy to allow gay Scouts, he said, no troops were disbanded when sponsorships were pulled.
The first two months of the year is rechartering time, he said, and at the end of February, he will have a better handle on membership numbers, though he doubts many Scouts or leaders have left the fold over the gay Scouts issue.
He said about a dozen churches that had sponsored troops had dropped charters because of the new scout membership policy. The Gulf Ridge Council includes 350-plus troops, he said.
“We are rolling along with the kids,’’ McGovern said. “We’re pleased with the way the year went.”
He said he wasn’t surprised that most of the sponsors and troop leaders have stuck with scouting.
“I think we’ve got a good quality program,” he said. “Parents are looking for the values we have in scouting and none of that has changed. It hasn’t changed in 100 years.
“We are still teaching ethics and character and helping youth make ethical choices and to be good citizens,” he said. “That’s what people want in their children. We teach them to learn to work together and earn what they get and to take responsibility. I think that’s why they stick with us.”
Among those affected by the new policy was Boy Scout Troop 4, Tampa’s oldest continuously chartered troop, which had spent the past 98 years as part of the then-First Christian Church, now the Holy Trinity Presbyterian Church in Hyde Park.
The church’s leaders decided in August to pull the sponsorship of the troop because of the change in the organization’s policy to allow gays.
“We’ve had several meetings with (Trinity Presbyterian),” said Troop 4 assistant Scoutmaster Tim Glisson. “We tried our very best, but they just were hell-bent on proceeding down this path. It’s just a real shame.”
Troop 4 hasn’t lost any members, he said, and what happened after Trinity Presbyterian pulled its sponsorship, “turned out to be a real positive experience. We all were bummed out at first, but we were taking it in stride. They’ve got a right to do what they want to do and we have right to do what we have to do.
“When all this happened,” he said, “we had nine churches and five or six different businesses that wanted to be our charter. The outpouring of caring in our community really helped us. We were pretty happy about that.”
The troop formed a relocation committee, which visited everyone who offered to take up the charter.
“We talked to every person who wanted to have us and it came down to Palma Ceia Presbyterian Church,” Glisson said. “I wasn’t surprised about the turnout. I’ve lived here all my life and I knew this community would do this. I knew somebody would step up.’’
The troop is planning a Jan. 19 commissioning ceremony at the church, 3501 W. San Jose St. in South Tampa.
The Catholic Church is a big sponsor of Scout troops, and the Diocese of St. Petersburg holds the charters for 30 troops in West Central Florida. In November, the nation’s bishops met in a conference in Baltimore and did not bring up the scouting matter, said diocese spokesman Frank Murphy. By not discussing the issue, the bishops in essence left the decision with individual bishops.
Locally, the Catholic Church will continue to sponsor troops, Murphy said.
“Nothing will change here,” he said. “We serve all people; we don’t judge and we don’t exclude.”
Gay advocates applauded the decision by the Boy Scouts of America and of organizations that have not pulled charters.
“There have always been LGBT teens in scouting,” said Nadine Smith, CEO of Equality Florida, “but given the policy of non-acceptance, they were forced to hide who they were.
“Hopefully the new non-discrimination policy will make for a healthier scouting experience.”
But the organization could have done more, she said, mainly by allowing gay Scout leaders.
“They are still sending a message that fails to meet the Scouts’ own standard of courage and leadership,” she said. “Millions of gay parents will continue to be excluded from participating as Scout leaders, sending a cruel and dehumanizing message to gay teens.”